Tuesday, September 19, 2006

High School Football – a growing big business

Friday Night Lights the best selling book written by H.G. Bissinger, focused on the 1988 Permian High School Panthers football team and the obsession the economically-depressed Texas town of Odessa has with the local high school football team. In 2004, Brian Glazer made a movie based on the book and on October 3, 2006 NBC will debut a series on how big high school football is in the Lone Star State. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, high school football has become larger then life. The real question we should be asking -- is it right or wrong and are young people being exploited by a system they drive?

Over the next three months, ESPN2, ESPNU and FSN will televise 18 high school football games on national television. Only three football games were televised last year.

What seemingly began a few years ago when LeBron James was a high school junior basketball player, has morphed into a steady diet of high school football and basketball games on national television. In a universe with hundreds of stations that need programming (ESPN has seven networks they need content for), television network executives are looking at all of their options, and high school sports have become the latest flavor of the day.

If the football program at James F. Byrnes High School (the Rebels) in Duncan, S.C., is a typical high school football program, the mythical line in the sand may indeed have been crossed. That line between a sane high school football program, and the vision of a larger then life high school football team on a runaway ‘business’ train. The football team’s uniforms are ‘donated’ by Nike. Nike outfitting a high school football team makes perfect sense. When the football field features a new $320,000 JumboTron at their stadium shows and, it shows high-resolution replays it becomes an example of perversity.

The Rebels Touchdown Club raised the money, for the scoreboard. How big is Duncan, South Carolina – 3,000 people. How and why any ‘town’ of 3,000 people believed it made sense to raise $320,000 for a JumbroTron shows the values of a small South Carolina town.

“I find myself studying marketing and business plans as much as I do game planning,” said Coach Bobby Bentley, who is also the Byrnes athletic director, in The New York Times report. “I know our football success is broadening these kids’ life experiences. I’m putting 80 kids on a plane this weekend, and 41 of them have never flown before. But you don’t want to sell your soul to do these things.”

Coach Bentley may not be willing to sell his soul, but he’s at the helm of a football program with values that are at best questionable. Long gone are the days when high school football was all about Friday nights, pep rallies, banners throughout the school, cheerleaders wearing their uniforms to school on Friday’s and football players wearing their team jackets to school. Any sense of normalcy has long departed high school football.

Friday night, two Florida high school football teams - Seffner Armwood and Tampa Jefferson met each other on ESPNU.

"It's gives tremendous recognition for Hillsborough County," said Vernon Korhn, the athletics director for the Hillsborough County (Fla.) schools in a report in the Winston Salem Journal. "I can't think of anything negative about this."

Korhn’s comments are classic of someone who can’t see the forest for the trees. Can you begin to imagine if ESPN and FSN had been interested in high school when Reggie Bush starred at San Diego’s Helix Charter High School? A high school football program on national TV is one that will have the ability to actively recruit Pop Warner football ‘kids’, and have enough exposure to begin seriously soliciting sponsorship dollars. That is a system built for corruption.

"Everybody wants to be on TV," said Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player who has become an expert on youth sports. But eventually a few dynasties will dominate the airwaves, leaving other teams desperate for a shot at the national spotlight, he said.

"The question is: What will they do to cheat to get to that level?" Bigelow said.

Tilea Coleman, a spokeswoman for ESPN, told The Winston Salem Journal the network has not lost sight of the fact that the players are youngsters. "It's just a way to showcase players that you might soon see at the collegiate level," she said. She also said that the main reason to broadcast games is for college recruiters.

Web sites devoted to college recruiting have largely fueled interest in televising high-school football, and cable channels see the games as a chance to develop niche programming.

In August, about 700,000 people tuned into ESPN's broadcast of a football game between Glades Central (Fla.) and Byrnes (S.C.). ESPN isn’t paying schools that appear on their family of networks, given the ratings and attention the games are generating it’s only a matter of time.

In Southern California, Fox Sports Net has an agreement to pay schools for exclusive broadcast rights to local games. Schools that play in televised games are expected to split $1,500 to $2,000 for each appearance.

“My concern is that we take something that is supposed to be educational and flip it over to purely entertainment,” Singleton said. “I understand these kids are getting to see parts of the country they may never have had the chance to, and to enjoy the thrill of a nationally televised game.” But he is concerned that the telecasts focus on who gets scholarships and who may go pro.

“If we to base the success of high school athletics on those things, then we’re a complete failure,” Jerome Singleton, executive director of the South Carolina High School League told The New York Times. “It should be as much about the kid at the end of the bench as the one getting all the hype.”

Sean Callahan, the football coach at Armwood (one of the schools that appeared on ESPNU Friday night), told The Winston Salem Journal he does not believe that his team's TV game hurts the purity of high-school sports.

"We're at the point when we're ready to leave this area and play teams out of state," he said. "It's not to say we're bored with being ranked as the best team in the state, but the opportunity to be known nationally is something that can keep us hungry."

Burke Magnus, ESPNU’s vice president and general manager, made it clear to The New York Times, he is well aware those in the industry believe ESPN are exploiting high school students.

Magnus said: “Is there a concern that there is an exploitive element to it? Absolutely! We think about it all the time, but we live in a different world than we did 15 years ago, and if people have an interest to get this content, they’re going to find it.”

“We’re beyond the point of time where you can prevent something like this from pervading into culture. At the end of the day, I know we can look in the mirror and say we did it the right way.”

Fox Sports Net's broadcast of Thursday's home game against Shreveport (La.) Evangel Christian will be the third Southlake Carroll (Texas) football game in three seasons televised nationally. The football team crowned mythical national high school football champion by USA Today the last two years, has become a marketing machine.

"I don't think we could create a better marketing scenario for selling, if you will, a product," said Julie Thannum, the Texas district's director of communication and marketing in a USA Today report. "I don't consider our kids a product. I consider the reputation and traditions of the district a product."

Carroll’s trademarked Dragon logo, made famous as Carroll's helmet decal, is sold on everything from trailer hitches to toilet-seat covers.

"I don't like all the commercialization and so many people trying to get a piece of pie, so to speak," said Former Southlake Carroll coach Bob Ledbetter, adding that he became tired of arguing the issue before retiring as athletic director in 2002. "I just never thought the game was supposed to be a fundraiser for the district."

Irregardless, the money continues to flow. Kiosks are available in the parking lot before home games – at a cost of $500. There are 39 advertising spaces at the stadium, beginning with banners above the main entrance on the home side. That doesn't include the ads on the cups sold at the concession stands.

"Do I think it's a little much? Absolutely," said booster club president Jack Luna, whose son, Aaron, starred at running back for Carroll from 2002 to 2004. "It seems that some people just want to make a buck off our kids. That irritates me, but it's a necessary evil."

TITUS Sports Marketing, a Texas based marketing firm is trying to sell the naming rights for Carroll’s football stadium – the school is looking for a ten-year, $1 million agreement. The stadium’s capacity is around 11,000. Athletic director Ronnie Tipps estimated that the profits from ticket sales and concessions for a home football game, often packed with standing-room-only crowds of 11,000, are between $40,000 and $45,000. Carroll also gets a cut of the gate receipts for playoff games, which often draw crowds of 30,000 or more.

Metro Sports Communications pays Carroll $15,000 for regular-season radio broadcast rights and an additional $1,000 per playoff game.

Saturday’s Insider delved into the world of NCAA football and basketball. CBS and Fox will collectively pay the NCAA and the Bowl Championship Series $645 million for 63 basketball games and five football games. Twenty-five years ago it would have been unimaginable for anyone to even consider the dollars now associated with college sports.

Where will the business of high school sports be in twenty-five years? Likely a “quantum leap” forward as a business, generating millions of dollars annually. Is that a system open to corruption is that a system capable of exploiting young people, is that a system that might take advantage of unsuspecting high school students, let alone teenagers? If games within the game that generates billions of dollars from college athletics, than it’s only a matter of time, fate and destiny.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The New York Times, The Winston Salem Journal and the USA Today