Why many Iowans won't be able to watch state wrestling on TV

Why many Iowans won't be able to watch state wrestling on TV

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Why many Iowans won't be able to watch state wrestling on TV

The Holterhaus family of Pella had a made-for-TV high school athletic experience lined up last November.

Daughter Emily played in a state volleyball championship aired on Iowa Public Television across Iowa. However, son Donovon’s state football championship was carried by CSN Chicago, a network that wasn’t available in the family home.

Illustration

Illustration

Pella High School students had different broadcast options for their sports — and not everyone was happy when they learned they couldn’t pick up the feed when the Dutch football team repeated as the state Class 3A champs.

“I had some family looking to find out,” said John Holterhaus, whose kids starred for their respective teams. “It was quite frustrating.”

With the state wrestling tournament starting Wednesday and the boys’ basketball tournament less than three weeks later, questions about TV coverage are rising again.

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Donovan Holterhaus (left) was a member of Pella's state championship football team.

Donovan Holterhaus (left) was a member of Pella’s state championship football team.

How did we get here?

Iowans across the state had varying experiences if they sought out fall high school championship coverage on TV. IPTV covers four girls’ sports (basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer) through the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.

But boys’ football, basketball and wrestling championships are aired by CSN Chicago. The network has a cable presence in eastern Iowa, as well as DISH and DirecTV satellite customers throughout the state. But about half of Iowa’s 99 counties don’t have cable access to CSN Chicago. Viewers noticed when they went looking for football coverage last fall. Concerns over watching winter sports triggered a letter from the Iowa High School Athletic Association, which oversees boys high school sports in Iowa, last week that announced the intention to “find a better solution” when CSN Chicago’s three-year contract ends.

In the Iowa market, about 40 percent of customers use DirecTV or DISH, another 40 percent watch Mediacom and the remainder use smaller companies, according to Phyllis Peters, communications director for Mediacom, which carries CSN Chicago for about half of its subscribers.

In 2014, the boys’ association sold broadcast rights to the Iowa High School Sports Network, a central Iowa production company. The IHSSN signed a three-year deal with CSN Chicago to air the state semifinal and championships in football, wrestling and basketball. Details of that contract were not made available to The Des Moines Register.

The resulting network delivered in essence a blackout for much of central and western Iowa cable subscribers. You won’t find state wrestling or boys basketball championships on your TV through your cable provider in Des Moines this year.

In the fall, four teams (West Des Moines Dowling Catholic, Pella, Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley and Western Christian of Hull) who won football state championships last year had fans who couldn’t watch their game on TV due to the current setup. If fans in Hull wanted to see the game, they faced a round-trip drive of more than eight hours to get to the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls and back.

Members of the Western Christian football team celebrate a win over Iowa City Regina on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, during the 2016 Iowa high school Iowa Class 1A football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

Members of the Western Christian football team celebrate a win over Iowa City Regina on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, during the 2016 Iowa high school Iowa Class 1A football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

“It was really disappointing,” said Bill Harmsen, the activities director at Western Christian. “The state football championships are on the other side of the state. You have a lot of grandmas and grandpas and people who couldn’t get off work that couldn’t watch.”

With the popular state wrestling tournament around the corner this week in Des Moines, some changes are already in the works.

CSN Chicago has been added to two small cable providers in Carroll and Readlyn in recent weeks, and the IHSSN is touting improved online viewing capabilities for wrestling. The association cannot make changes in the deal with CSN Chicago, since it already sold control rights to the sports IHSSN.

The association is aware of complaints from fans who can’t access the championships, executive director Alan Beste said.

“We understand their concerns; we hear their voice,” Beste said.

Meanwhile, the state girls’ basketball tournament will be aired on IPTV, a network of regional public stations that reach border to border.

“It comes down to the two different organizations,” Pella activities director Dale Otte said about the differences in viewing options for girls and boys sports.

The deal with CSN Chicago

Phil Bedella realized how big the state high school wrestling tournament is when he heard a daily viewership report from an Iowa cable company.

It said more Iowans watching one cable network viewed the state wrestling meet than “Dancing with the Stars.” After that, the vice president/general manager of CSN Chicago was intrigued.

The Chicago network has 4.2 million viewers. Though a breakdown of Iowa viewers was not available, CSN Chicago said it serves most of eastern Iowa.

The network made a name for itself with Chicago professional sports coverage. High school sports also became part of the business plan.

“Every year, I become more impressed with high school sports,” Bedella said.

The IHSSN, a media company started by Krogman and Associates of Urbandale, first purchased a 10-year rights contract from both the boys association and the girls union in 2006 for nearly $2 million. Several changes would occur in the contract in later years. The union’s contract was terminated in 2013.

In 2014, a new 10-year boys’ deal was made between the IHSAA and the IHSSN. That contract called for $730,000, including a $60,000 payment for the first two years and eventually rising to $80,000 a year, according to Beste.

The IHSSN previously worked with through individual Iowa television affiliates to air coverage prior to the CSN Chicago deal. That included stations like KCWI and KDMI and cable provider Mediacom in the central Iowa market for football semifinals and finals.

CSN Chicago approached the IHSSN about a year and a half before they signed a contract in 2016, Bedella said. CSN offered more than 85 hours of Iowa high school sports content in the deal, bringing high-definition picture quality and DISH and DirecTV access.

Ken Krogman, owner and president of the IHSSN, declined multiple requests to speak to the Register for this article. But Beste said the IHSSN sought a way to get the coverage that would provide the most advantages to Iowa viewers.

CSN Chicago has attempted to expand viewing options to its Iowa audience since the fall. It recently added DirecTV Now and Sony PlayStation Vue. The wrestling tournament will offer livestreaming through the IHSSN as well, which includes the state dual team tournament.

Livestreaming will include dual tournament coverage as well as first round and quarterfinal matches from the traditional for $9.95. CSN subscribers can watch the semifinals and finals on CSNChicago.com, which is available through the NBC Sports app.

“We’re trying to be more local,” Bedella said.

Cable giant not included

Mediacom’s Channel 22 is a familiar station for Iowa high school sports.

The network has production crews based in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Spirit Lake and the Quad Cities. They produce sports programming to reach Mediacom’s 425,000 Iowa subscribers.

While Channel 22 isn’t a moneymaker for the network, it serves to help establish a brand in 309 Iowa towns in 87 of the state’s 99 counties.

“For more than a decade, we’ve had a commitment to Iowa high school sports,” said Phyllis Peters, Mediacom’s director of communications.

The network’s aim for programming has become more complicated as rights to cover Iowa high school events are bought and sold.

When the IHSSN was formed and working to negotiate a contract with both of the state’s athletic governing bodies, it outbid Mediacom for the TV rights, Peters said. That contract initially included football, volleyball, girls’ and boys’ basketball, softball, baseball and wrestling.

The deal extended to specific postseason events. The IHSSN was able to sell production and simulcast rights to other networks for events for a fee. That cooperation between Mediacom and the IHSSA helped lead to Mediacom’s production teams airing postseason high school tournaments.

But rising fees was a factor in Mediacom’s decision to stop buying rights for some events, Peters said.

“It would be nice if we cooperated the way we used to,” Peters said. “We’re hoping for more cooperation.”

Wrestling fans take in the action from the afternoon session in Class 1A and 3A on Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, during the 2015 Iowa state wrestling meet at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

Wrestling fans take in the action from the afternoon session in Class 1A and 3A on Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, during the 2015 Iowa state wrestling meet at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

The picture changed when CSN Chicago bought exclusive access to boys’ basketball, football and wrestling state events from the IHSSN in July. The move placed the Illinois network into competition with Mediacom — which offers Fox Sports Midwest, not CSN Chicago in some of its coverage areas — and other Iowa companies.

CSN Chicago has urged Iowa high school sports fans to contact their local cable companies to request the channel.

For smaller Iowa cable outfits, making the switch can be easier.

Western Iowa Networks, which is based in Carroll and offers more than 200 channels, added CSN Chicago for its subscribers last month in its expanded and supreme bundled packages. About 600 subscribers have access to the new channel. The cable company dropped Minnesota-based Fox Sports North to add the Chicago network, according to Wes Treadway, marketing manager for Western Iowa Networks.

The addition gives Carroll-area viewers a chance to watch state wrestling and boys’ basketball coverage, along with programming of the Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series.

The availability of the state wrestling tournament, along with basketball and football, was a driver for the decision. RTC Communications in Readlyn, near Waterloo, also has contracted with CSN Chicago.

“It was a huge value to our subscribers,” said Treadway, who is related to a wrestling coach. “We’re excited. We’re excited now that we can offer that.”

RTC Communications in Readlyn, near Waterloo, also has contracted with CSN Chicago.

The network has added Iowa college programming to its lineup: Missouri Valley Conference sports, Northern Iowa football and basketball and coaches’ shows for Iowa and Iowa State.

One state, two approaches 

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union is in year one of a three-year contract with IPTV to broadcast championships from four state tournaments — volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball.

The union, which reported revenue of more than $3.8 million in 2014, according to its most recently available tax return, doesn’t get revenue from the deal. What it does receive is access to a statewide audience.

“It’s a great relationship,” said Susan Ramsey, director of communications for IPTV. “We’re the only statewide network.”

Underwriters sponsor the production costs.

Fans of girls’ tournaments have found a consistent place to turn for coverage in recent years.

“It’s just so easy for the girls, with the access,” said Pella’s Holterhaus, who also serves as an assistant girls’ basketball coach for the Class 4A No. 1-ranked squad.

Beste said although the boys’ association does receive TV revenue, the money isn’t as important as getting exposure for Iowa boys’ sports.

The nonprofit association reported $6.6 million in revenue in 2014, according to its tax returns.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about making events available,” Beste said. “It’s much less about the finances.”

Fans begin to file into Wells Fargo Arena for the afternoon session on Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, during the 2015 Iowa state wrestling meet in Des Moines, Iowa.

Fans begin to file into Wells Fargo Arena for the afternoon session on Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, during the 2015 Iowa state wrestling meet in Des Moines, Iowa.

Beste said the number of complaints the association received about football coverage was “not a major number,” but the statement the organization released last week was in part made to make sure the Iowa high school sports audience knew concerns would be addressed.

The IHSAA’s contract is with the IHSSN, not with CSN Chicago, Beste stressed. It has no say in making changes in the three-year contract with CSN Chicago and doesn’t have an opt-out option.

There was a long tradition of IPTV broadcasting the traditional state wrestling finals. IPTV carried the championships for 31 years until 2002. Like the Union’s current agreement, there was no fee paid by public television.

That arrangement ended when the IHSAA was paid a $10,000 annual fee by Thompson Sports of Des Moines for a four-year rights contract. Thompson’s network included six Iowa television stations.

Bernie Saggau, then executive director of the association, said in a 2002 Register article about the deal: “I think the purpose of Iowa Public Television is to carry things as a service. But if somebody can make some money, they’re no longer a service. Yes, it was a service to the people in the state of Iowa, but it was also a service for us to give it to them free.”

Will the upcoming state tournament setup create complaints? That’s yet to be determined.

Pella’s boys’ basketball team is ranked third in 3A. Western Christian’s squad is No. 1 in 2A. Boyden-Hull is No. 10 in 1A. They may return to state in March, only to create more concerns about how fans can watch the games.

“If that happens, it will create people who are disgruntled,” Harmsen said.

How to watch state wrestling

Television: CSN Chicago: DirecTV 665, Dish Network 429, local cable networks that carry CSN Chicago.

Livestream: Check ihssn.com for schedule and access.

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