Skip to main content

Fame Game: Why High School Sports Play on Cable

For high-school football and basketball
players not lucky enough to make All–American or go pro,
cable TV is working to make their glory days live forever.

Cable giants Comcast, Time Warner Cable and others are
going long on high school sports, with live and taped game
telecasts, as well as advanced media services like on-demand and
streaming video of local games.

The aggressive plays, such as Cablevision’s MSG Varsity channel, are
designed to solidify their presence within local communities, while
serving as retention and acquisition tools. “When you know that a
classmate, your son, or a friend or neighbor’s kid is on television, you’re
going to tune in,” said Don Buckley, athletic director of St. Anthony’s
High School in South Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island.

National sports networks, from the ESPN suite of services to CBS
College Sports Network, have also upped their game with increased
coverage of contests and the college recruitment scene, while various
regional sports networks have jumped in with competitions and stories
of more local interest.

Just like the pro teams did with the regional sports networks and
Big Ten Network and SEC deals in college, high school sports could really
become big in some areas like Texas and the southeast,” said Comcast
senior vice president of sports content Mike Sheehey.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations,
participation for
the 2008-09 school year
reached all-time highs with
some 4.42 million boys and
3.11 million girls.

Why watch coach Norman
Dale and star player
Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers,
when you can see
the game that inspired the
movie? Teaming with the
Indiana High School Athletic
Association, Comcast
and Bright House
Networks are making the
top high school basketball
games in state history
available to their subscribers
on demand, including
contests featuring Oscar
Robertson, Damon Bailey
and Greg Oden.

The on-demand package
also includes the 1954 state
final on which Hoosiers is
based. Small-school Milan
(Hickory in the Hollywood
version) defeated Muncie
Central when Bobby Plump
drained the game-winner
with three seconds left. From largely the same spot on the floor,
Plump’s Hoosiers alter ego, Chitwood (Maris Varainis), hit the jumper
that slayed fictional South Bend Central High after guaranteeing coach
Dale (Gene Hackman), “I’ll make it!”

The on-demand action is a prelude to the 100th boys tournament March
27 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, whose games are made available
to other cable operators in the state, including Bright House, Insight Communications,
Mediacom Communciations and Avenue Broadband.

“This is our fifth year with live tournament games,” said Brett Hatch,
local programming manager for Comcast’s Indianapolis region, noting
games from the 2010 tournament are available on-demand for up
to four weeks. “Naturally, the players and their families watch, but in
March around here there are a lot of people interested in high school
basketball. This helps give us a real presence on the ground.”

Hoops-crazy Indiana isn’t the only hotbed for high school sports.
Time Warner Cable in North Carolina just produced eight boys’ and
girls’ North Carolina High School Athletic Association state championship
games, two of which were telecast live on News 14 Carolina
across the state, while all of the contests were streamed live and are
now available on Carolina on Demand.

“Many of the communities we serve support and rally around highschool
athletic teams,” said Alan Mason, vice president and general
manager of News 14 Carolina. “Our marketing brings more visibility
to the state high school championship events than ever before, and
our production of the games on multiple platforms allows more people
to see the games than could attend in person.”

For Cablevision subscribers in the New York area, the category has
graduated to a higher level with a dedicated channel, MSG Varsity, that
has four feeds around the DMA, plus digital teammates in the form of, an interactive channel and VOD programming.

Launched last September, MSG Varsity has 120 full-time staff ers and
has already partnered with some 250 schools in the tri-state area. By the
end of this school year, it will have professionally produced more than
400 live-to-tape games under its “High School Sports Showcase” banner.
A crawl, a la ESPN’s “BottomLine,” updates scores from throughout the
area. Th e network presents an hour-long news show, High School SportsDesk,
that features action from 200 schools over the course of a week.

The curriculum goes beyond just sports, as MSG Varsity, which retains
some 40 production contractors and media trainers, also puts a
focus on clubs and activities by equipping students and faculty with
cameras to create their own TV and Web-video segments.

The MSG Varsity Web site has four subsections for each geographic
region, as well as dedicated areas for partner schools. Meanwhile, MSG
Varsity Interactive collates the fare on the Web site and serves it up
to digital-cable customers on interactive channel 614.

“We’ve only been around for six months, and we’re just
starting to hit our stride,” said general manager Theresa
Chillianis. “This helps position MSG Varsity as
becoming more hyper-local.”

Bigger, more established sports networks
such as the ESPN family — including the
flagship, ESPN2 and 70 million-home college
network ESPNU — and CBS College Sports, continue to increase their
high-school game presentations
and recruitment programming,
especially around national signing
days. Unlike the local efforts
of most cable operators and most
regional networks, ESPN counts
Under Armour, Nike, Old Spice,
the U.S. Marines and Gatorade
among the companies that sponsor
tournaments and competitions.

Regional sports networks are
also turning their cameras on
younger student athletes. For
Sports Time Ohio, whose primary
property is MLB’s Cleveland Indians,
high-school sports not only
makes a local connection, but is
vital content. “As a one-pro-sport
regional sports network, we need
to make sure we have programming
past baseball season,” said
president Jim Liberatore.

To that end,
STO has been
the home
of the
High School
Athletic Association
since the fall of
2007, producing a minimum
of 32 events every year, covering
football, boys’ and girls’ basketball,
volleyball, softball, ice
hockey and boys’ and girls’ bowling,
a number in high-definition.
In 2009, the RSN added a regular-
season “High School Football
Game of the Week” franchise.

“It’s a point of differentiation
with HD for operators, and we offer
Time Warner Cable exclusive
VOD full games,” he said.

Liberatore, citing the four-page
preview The Cleveland Plain Dealer
devoted to the recent scholastic
wrestling championships, is eyeing
the possibility of a pay-perview
package during the week of
the top tournaments. STO also is
exploring the possibility of offering
a mobile news service next

While some of the top football
championship games generate
Nielsen numbers that can
match some Indians contests,
Liberatore said the ratings are
generally “OK.”

“It’s a sum of small of audiences.
The people who want to see
the telecasts are at the games:
the athletes, the parents who
watch their kids play and the students
who were socializing at the
events,” he said.

Comcast’s Sheehey also
sees audience limitations.
“There are big schools
that can draw some attention,”
he said. “But
a rivalry among
Eastern schools in
a market doesn’t
necessarily generate
as much interest
in the Western
or Southern part of a

MaxPreps, the division of CBS
Interactive that supplies the latest
high school sports news, analysis,
ranking and streaming content
from around the nation, believes
it may have introduced a solution
that can help the schools control
costs via its partnership with Agile
Sports Technologies. The latter
has developed a low-cost proprietary
Internet-based sports video
editing system called Hudl.
MaxPreps will market the system
to the more than 30,000 high
school coaches across 12,523 high
school athletic departments who
currently load their teams’ info
onto president Andy
Beal said Hudl not only works by
giving coaches access to more
content for scouting purposes
and to team players for instruction,
but will help the Sacramento,
Calif.-headquartered company
enhance and diversify its offerings
to benefit cable operators
looking to differentiate themselves
with more local content.

Over the course of the 2009-10
school year, MaxPreps, in conjunction
with CBS College Sports
and ClearLeap, has been creating
and delivering some 400 five- to
seven-minute segments breaking
down high school football, basketball,
cross country, wrestling,
volleyball, soccer and lacrosse in
Houston for Comcast digital customers
on a VOD basis.

Anne Stith, director of product
management for Comcast’s Houston
region, said the shorts include
graphics overlays, announcers,
cutaways and analysis, plus historical
and background information.
“Frankly, I thought we would
be getting high-school kids with a
camcorder, but Max Preps has an
executive on the ground working
with four or five contractors,” she

Since the high school VOD
content became available last
fall, some 30,000 households
have viewed the segments,
amounting to more than 40,000
sessions. Stith, who called that
performance “phenomenal,”
said Comcast has scheduled a
meeting with MaxPreps to develop
a Best of 2009-10 show that
would run on Comcast Sports
Southwest and then hit the ondemand
menu. That RSN has
also has been home to a “Thursday
Night Lights” package of
football and hoops games that
Comcast makes accessible ondemand
for up to 90 days.

CBS College Sports vice president
of distribution Bob Rose said
the channel is nearing another
deal for Max Preps to work with
a top-5 MSO to launch a similar
VOD product in multiple markets.
“People want local content,
and operators want to deliver it
exclusively,” he said.

Other competitors are coming
on the field. MSG Varsity could
have a new rival in the New York
DMA by the fall. New York City’s
Public School Athletic League,
looking to increase the number
of students and teams participating
in the five boroughs, issued a
request for information to gauge
media entities’ interesting in carrying
high school sports.

Donald Douglas, the executive
director of the PSAL, was pleased
with the response, which included
Time Warner Cable, Cablevision
and MaxPreps, and the
school system is now moving forward
with a request for proposals,
being developed in conjunction
with Civic Entertainment Group
agency and Octagon Sports.

“We haven’t solidified a time
frame yet, but we don’t want to
miss a school year,” Douglas
said. “Our goal is not necessarily
to find one network.”

MSG Varsity, which has already
shared some content with
Time Warner Cable, is “open for
discussions,” but Chillianis won’t
speculate in advance of the RFP,
which is likely to be drawn in late
April or May.

Few cable or high school officials believe there is a big downside
to the exposure. “Most of
these athletes are regular kids, 17,
18 years old,” Comcast’s Sheehey
said. “There are no million-dollar
contracts, no CBA issues. Ninety-
five percent or more are never
going to play past high school, so
this is their big moment. They’ll
have a DVD to show their kids
that mom or dad was on the field
back in the day.”