Wednesday, January 07, 2009

ESPN makes its move into high school sports

If you're sick over missing your teenager's game at the high school gym last week, here's a thought. Watch the rerun on ESPN.

Not an option for most of us, of course. But the iconic sports media conglomerate has moved into high school sports coverage in a big and - for those of us concerned about the commercialization of kids sports - slightly unnerving way.

Last month, ESPN announced it's staging what sounds a lot like a national "Final Four" for high school boys and girls basketball. The tournament will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPNU and the title game on ESPN on April 5.

That move follows a two-year stretch in which ESPN has been gobbling up smaller (by definition, compared to ESPN) competitors such,,, (a boys and girls cross-country and track Web site) and the entity now known as ESPN Scouts Inc. All that was prelude to ESPN's big move last August - the launch of a high school sports Web site

For me, the most startling thing about coverage of prep sports is to turn on the TV and see a game being telecast live around the globe, with six cameras, replays, analysis, all the trappings of a pro game on TV, knowing some of these kids are 14 years old. At that age, I would have been mortally embarrassed to drop a pop up in front of six fans. Imagine fouling up in front of a worldwide TV audience. I'm trying, but I can't.

Last year, ESPN networks - ESPN2 and ESPNU - aired 19 high school football games from 15 different states, ending with an Arizona prep game Nov. 7.

For a piece in this week's Sports Business Journal, I spoke with a principal at a high school that played in one of the games. John Graham, principal of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland told me that he had concerns about how a football game beamed all over the country can shape perceptions. “We want to make it clear, our kids are here to get an education, not play football,” he said “We don’t want football to be more important than it really is. Yet any time you’re showcasing high school athletes on TV, there’s a danger of that.”

On the other hand, Graham said that he was pleased with ESPN's telecast of Good Counsel's game against DeMatha Catholic High School on Oct. 2 (including the final score, a 42-21 victory for Good Counsel).

“The telecast showed the school in a very favorable light,” the principal said.

One of the more surprising things I learned doing this story is what the schools appearing on ESPN are paid for inviting the TV cameras to their football games. Each school receives a rights fee of....$1,000.


jfb said...

The $1,000 fee does seem ludicrous. But what if the rights fee was, say, $25,000? Would schools be falling all over one another to get ESPN to televise their games? Would high schools allow games to take place on Wednesday nights and allow ESPN to set the all-familiar tone of athletics over academics?

Mark Hyman said...

Good point. I see it as two issues. First, if prep games are appealing enough to be on ESPN, seems to me they must be worth more than $2,000 ($1,000 per school). Second, the money doesn't have to go to the schools playing in the game. What if the fee - say, $50,000 per game - went to a general education fund, in this case, for the state of Maryland? Or - because both are parochial institutions - funded academic scholarships at Catholic high schools?

Coachhrd said...

Mark, I linked to one of your recent posts on my blog. Feel free to check it out.