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What Has Happened To High School Football? - Part Iby: Steve Dorsey
© April 2010
Last year on October 2nd, ESPNU’s showcase game featured the nation’s #1 ranked team facing off with the team ranked #2. It was a highly-anticipated match-up of unbeatens that would, no doubt, play a major role in the chase for the national championship. In a unique wrinkle, the two teams had never played each other. High ratings were guaranteed.
No, this wasn’t the NCAA collegiate game of the week but a contest between two high schools – Ft. Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas and Byrnes High School from Duncan, South Carolina.
With weekly nationally televised games that are engineered between top teams from different parts of the country, multi-team tournaments sponsored by national corporations and numerous all-star games, high school football has become a packaged sports television product that gains in hours and visibility every year.
Until recently, however, exposure for high school was basically limited to their community media.
Neal Pilson was an executive at CBS Sports 30 years ago when the idea was discussed about producing a live all-star high school football game on national television. The network decided not to pursue it. Pilson said the idea was axed because the consensus was that it might be “disruptive” to the norm of what high school sports represented and that “high school kids shouldn’t get that kind of exposure.”
Three decades later, there are games on national television each week during the season, reality television shows such as Two-a-Days and Varsity, Inc., have been aired and 18-year-old phenoms are demanding TV exposure at nationally televised all-star games to announce where they plan to attend college on a scholarship. ESPN, a forerunner of nationally televised high school events in recent years, promotes the announcement of five-star rated players for its televised all-star games, and college football junkies in America tune in to witness it.
It’s a phenomenon that does not appear to be a fad. High school players today are more scrutinized and evaluated than ever, and it’s probably going to become more sophisticated, like it or not, because it’s becoming a business.
“What’s driving all this is the American public,” said Pilson, a well-respected TV sports industry executive who today is president of Pilson Communications in Chappaqua, N.Y. “They’re buying high school sports. TV reflects the interests of the public. The public has expressed its interest in high school athletes.”
Proof of that is the annual hoopla on the first Wednesday of February, referred to nationwide as national signing day and so vastly popular that newspapers and recruiting Web sites capitalize on it as if it’s a national holiday.
Dan Margulis, the director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU, compares signing day as college football’s NFL Draft day. “We anticipated it would be popular with our viewers,” Margulis said. “Signing day is college football teams reloading.”
It’s a trickle-down effect that is the result of modern technology. A football coach would have to be living in the Dark Ages not to realize the advantages and popularity of the internet, but regardless whether you subscribe to the techniques of Vince Lombardi or Rex Ryan, one thing is certain – fans more than ever are privy to film of high school players and the breakdown of their abilities.
It is accentuated especially on national and regional telecasts of high school football games, which have become a weekly showcase during the fall. Margulis said ESPN or one of its affiliates plan to televise 18-20 games this fall and are working on putting together a season-opening game or games to kick off the season the weekend before Labor Day, similar to what the network does with college football.
Pilson and CBS actually were onto something back 30 years ago. As the internet and cable television crept into our lives, the landscape of high school football viewing began to change. When 1.67 million viewers tuned into ESPN’s telecast of a high school basketball game that featured then-prep phenom LeBron James in 2002, it was the highest rating in almost two years for ESPN2. ESPN needed no more convincing that there was a market for high school sports that stretched beyond both inner-city and small-town rivalries across America. They sensed that high school football fans from California to Florida wanted to see interstate match-ups.
Paragon Sports Marketing Group made the first move in 2003 and promoted a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown between De La Salle of Concord, California and Evangel Christian of Shreveport, Louisiana. The game generated unprecedented national media coverage and attracted viewers in almost a half-million homes. The ratings proved that high school football could generate interest beyond just the communities it served locally.
Rashid Ghazi of Paragon said selling the product was no easy task at first. Ghazi said more than 150 potential sponsors were contacted, but only three came on board. “We had to educate the advertisers,” Ghazi said, adding that they barely covered their expenses for putting on the De La Salle-Evangel game. “It takes ten years to build an overnight success story, and we’re entering year nine with ESPN. It’s a process. ESPN has done a phenomenal job of putting the product out there. It’s worked so far.”
That was evident last year when 25,000 fans attended one of the games in the Kirk Herbstreit Varsity Football Series, which will be staged again this year with games on Sept. 5-6 at Ohio Stadium and Sept. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Texas. The games will be televised on ESPN, ESPNU and FoxSportsNet.
For years, a debate has raged between Florida and Texas over which state has the best high school football. It will heat up even more this year with the Florida vs. Texas High School Football Showcase, a two-day event presented by C&B National Sports Marketing Group that will be held Sept. 10-11 at DeSoto High in Texas and match four of the best teams from each state against each other.
Drew Russell of Intersport, a Chicago-based marketing company affiliated with the Herbstreit Series, said his company recognized a few years ago the passion and popularity of matching successful, high-profile high school football programs in games, especially those that are intriguing interstate match-ups. “The families love it,” Russell said of the experience. “The response and feedback we got from the band directors and cheerleaders was as positive as it was from the coaches and players.”
The games also serve as a recruiting showcase for players and feed the ever-expanding spectrum of recruiting Web sites, which in turn appeases the public’s hunger for more and more information on college prospects. Post-season all-star games such as the Under Armour and U. S. Army games increasingly are becoming platforms for the most highly sought-after players to announce their verbal commitments.
“Televised high school all-star games have turned the recruiting calendar upside down,” said Jim Laise, who covers West Virginia University football for Rivals.com. “Less big-timers make their commitments in the summer, fall or even December. The five-stars wait until January’s post-season network games. In general, TV has elevated high school football. From a college football fan’s perspective, he or she wants to see Ol’ State U’s targeted recruits play under the bright lights. More and more, fans want to see what their teams might get in February, based on their own eyes.”
There are detractors, however, who believe that high school players are being over-exposed by the nationally televised games and that the pressure of playing in front of a national TV audience is not healthy for their psyche. Dr. Richard Ginsburg, a sports psychology consultant and a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, is among those who have voiced their concern about possible adverse effects. It’s one thing to fumble the ball or miss an assignment that might cost your team a game on an October Friday night in front of a few hundred local fans. It’s really blown up if that occurs on national television with several hundred thousand watching.
“Bottom line, I don’t think high school athletes are ready for prime-time television,” Ginsburg told the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, FL, last fall before Florida’s Venice High played Oscar Smith High of Chesapeake, VA, in a nationally televised game on ESPNU. “It falsely inflates a sense of importance that rarely serves their maturity and overall development. Are these boys equipped to manage both the brief wave of fame they may achieve from successful play as well as the exploitation of their failures? I don’t think so.”
Pilson, the former CBS Sports executive, said he believes today’s players are better equipped mentally to handle the pressure, however. “I think their maturity level is better today,” Pilson said. “The negative is it becomes more important than the academics. I worry about that some.”
Intersport’s Russell said he understands the criticism and concern, but believes the overall learning experience accentuates the positives. “A lot of these kids might never get a chance to do this again, walking out of the tunnel at Ohio Stadium, first time on a plane,” Russell said. “From that perspective, the benefits outweigh the negative aspects.”
George Smith, the head coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, FL, agrees. Aquinas has played in nationally televised games the past two years, including last year’s marquee match-up against South Carolina powerhouse Byrnes High, a game that matched the top-ranked teams in the nation at the time and included 21 Division I prospects. The year before, Smith took his team to Cincinnati for another ESPN televised game at Paul Brown Stadium and will play in the Herbstreit Series at Cowboy Stadium on Labor Day weekend this year. Smith said even though its a whirlwind trip that demands detailed preparation, the overall experience for his players was positive. “It’s something that can never, ever, ever be duplicated,” Smith said. “You’re taking a group of players, moving them on a plane, buses, feeding them, getting them to the stadium. It’s a team-bonding experience.”
The marketing companies that promote the games cover all of the travel expenses for the teams, but Smith said that the school and boosters did have to raise some extra money on its own to cover other expenses. As it stands now, schools make little if any money on the events unless they host a game and retain some of the gate and concession receipts or possibly line up a sponsor. Pilson said, however, that he has seen an increase in businesses focusing on the high school market in recent years and believes that it’s an extension of the popularity of college sports. The potential revenue could help high school athletic programs maintain their budgets and perhaps receive a financial windfall from corporate sponsorships.
“I don’t think we’ve touched the real money yet,” Pilson said. “Compared to college and the pros, no, I don’t think it will be comparable. But every dollar that finds its way to schools is a dollar taxpayers don’t have to spend.”
All of the televised games, whether they are national or regional telecasts, match teams that are nationally ranked or have some high profile players who will attract a viewing audience. Otherwise, it would not be a profitable adventure for the television networks. “We certainly pay attention to all the different rankings,” said Russell. “We try to focus on schools with long-standing reputations. We want the big-time recruits and elite players who will be attractive to a national audience.”
That might not seem fair to the thousands of other high school football programs that are left out of the national spotlight, but it is a business and as long as football fans across the nation continue to tune in, ESPNU’s Margulis does not foresee any decrease in the number of telecasts. “As long as football as a sport is healthy, I don’t see us going backward on it,” Margulis said. “We’re very committed to it. Our viewers and fans are the ones who dictate what we do. When we roll into a town, we see what our presence does for them. It’s a pretty neat thing.”
Paragon’s Ghazi said the aim of the telecasts is to also showcase the various communities where ESPN goes to televise a game, and that 70 percent of their games are regional telecasts. “We’re in the business of promoting kids in a positive way,” Ghazi said. “It’s an education for them, a chance to travel and experience the interviews. When schools and administrators stop calling us to come to their town, we’ll stop doing it.”
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