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Preps on the big stage

Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and others are paying more attention to high schools

Posted: August 14, 2009 9:10 p.m.
Updated: August 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Valencia High baseball player Christian Lopes and Canyon Country resident Courtney Proctor hold up the July 13-20 issue of Sports Illustrated. Both athletes were featured in the magazine.

 
High school sports is growing.

Want an indication?

Turn on the ESPN or Fox Sports or flip through the pages of Sports Illustrated — three of the biggest names in sports media — and you’ll see high school sports coverage.

This decade has seen a rise in the coverage.

Why?

Because people are demanding it.

“I think the primary thing is the demographic (major media companies) are trying to shoot for,” said Mark Tennis, deputy editor for ESPN Rise and editor of Calhisports.com on why more attention is being paid to high school athletics. ESPN Rise is a multi-pronged effort by ESPN to connect with high school athletes through a Web site, magazine and events. “Kids are a huge part of any company’s demographic. ESPN has their success on many different fronts. They really don’t have a strong perception with teens and teen athletes and now they’re making an impression.”

Channels like ESPNU and Fox Sports Prime Ticket have given special attention to high school athletics recently.

Fox Sports has had an agreement with the CIF-Southern Section to televise football games for more than a decade now.

The two organizations are in negotiations on renewing a deal for the 2009 football season and an announcement is expected shortly, according to Thom Simmons, director of communications for the CIF-SS.

There are benefits for both sides of agreements like these.

For Fox Sports, the high school sports programming gives it a more well-rounded product, said Whitney Garvens, Fox Sports West and Fox Sports Prime Ticket.

She declined to say what the financial benefits for Fox Sports are, but said high school programming helps boost the network’s standing with viewers.

“We’re kind of the mouthpiece for all sports,” Garvens said. “We want to showcase everybody in the best light.”
Simmons said there are financial benefits to having a CIF-SS team’s football game televised.
“I can tell you that last year, we gave back over $40,000 in TV money (to the CIF-SS schools who appeared on Fox Sports Prime Ticket).”

That money, Simmons said, goes to the home team school to help pay for the various costs of having a game televised.

The last time the Fox Sports Prime Ticket crew came to the Santa Clarita Valley was Oct. 12, 2007 when Hart defeated Canyon at Harry Welch Stadium 31-28 on a last-second field goal.

Over the years, Santa Clarita teams have been featured prominently on Prime Ticket.

Hart football has played about 10 games over the last decade-plus on the channel.

It’s a double-edged sword when it comes to being on TV, said Hart head coach Mike Herrington.

“It brings a lot of attention to the program,” Herrington said. “But it’s more work for us, too. You have all the people broadcasting the game that want stats and the little work that gets them prepared.”

Herrington said the home school does receive money for hosting the televised game, but the gate draw is less because fewer people from the opponent’s side travel to the game.

That won’t stop schools from saying “No” to the exposure, though.

And the exposure is growing.

ESPNU, a channel that mostly showcases college sports, airs high school programming as well, such as the Under Armour All-America Softball Game, a recruiting insider show and a high school showcase.

Fox Sports Prime Ticket airs the weekly “High School Spotlight.”

The MLB Network shows the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft in June, which features many high school baseball players.
Tennis said the television moment that opened the door for high school sports occurred in 2003 when ESPN televised a high school football game between California powerhouse Concord De La Salle and Louisiana powerhouse Evangel Christian Academy.

The year prior to that, ESPN televised a high school basketball game of St. Vincent-St. Mary High of Akron, Ohio.

That team’s star player was high school senior LeBron James.

Tennis said high school basketball rivals high school football in media coverage in some areas, such as parts of the Northeast such as Boston and inner-city New York City, but football remains dominant.

But Tennis added that there are other sports that are gaining more and more attention, most notably softball.

“The sport has taken off,” he said.

The reason, Tennis said, is softball is fast-paced with a lot of action.

“College softball gets a great rating. Little League softball is on ESPN.  (The sport) is falling in love with ESPN,” Tennis said.

A major reason, people interviewed for this story say, for the increased media attention to high school sports is the realization that if something is a compelling story, it has no age limit.

Sports Illustrated and USA Today have given much attention to high school sports.

The July 6 cover of Sports Illustrated featured Ed Thomas, the Iowa High School football coach who was allegedly gunned down by one of his former players.

Tennis said ESPN cameras will be there for the team’s first 2009 game.

On July 13, Sports Illustrated had a feature inside the magazine that highlighted 14 stars of tomorrow – two of the 14 were Santa Clarita Valley high school student-athletes Christian Lopes and Courtney Proctor.

USA Today has featured high school athletes on its sports front page and does national rankings in various sports. It also devotes one of its Web pages to high school sports.

Yahoo also has a strong high school presence with Rivals.com, one of the nation’s top-recruiting sites.

Dallas Jackson, the managing producer for high school sports for Rivals.com, said society now demands to know who the next Tiger Woods or LeBron James is. Thus, the media is reaching out to high schools.

Is there a drawback?

“There is a pushback a little bit,” Jackson said. “Some people feel increased attention rushes maturity and exposes immaturity.”
Nonetheless, big media is working on more ways to bring high school athletics to the masses.

Representatives from three companies mentioned in this story said they were in meetings to discuss their futures with high school sports.

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