ESPN is televising 26 high school games this season on its various networks, including 13 this weekend. With newly launched Fox Sports 1 running a schedule of seven games, there are nationally televised high school games on every weekend through Nov. 1, including games each day of the week except for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Is all this exposure good for high school sports?
“The whole landscape of high school football has changed because of television,” Manatee (Bradenton, Fla.) coach Joe Kinnan said. Manatee has played games on ESPN networks in two of the last three seasons. “It’s great notoriety for the kids and your program. It certainly doesn’t hurt your kids’ marketability as far as recruiting. The TV games help us at the gate. I really think a lot of people come because of the ambience and excitement of being on national TV.”
But that excitement can be a detriment, said Billy Hawkins, a sports sociologist at the University of Georgia.
“You’re getting more exposure for your school and your athletes,” Hawkins said. “But when you look at what the mission of what scholastic sports is, you’re getting away from the emphasis on the student body. We’re sort of following the same path that we’re seeing with collegiate athletics.
“Talk about what happens to a student-athlete the day or week of a big game and add in the impact of television. How intent would they be to the content management of a course? When a game is on TV, school is the last thing on their mind.”
Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) football coach Tony Sanchez said being on television can be a learning experience. The No. 21-ranked Gaels, who have won four consecutive state titles, will play games this season on Fox Sports 1 and ESPN.
“I think this is an educational environment in every sense of the word,” Sanchez said. “Not all of your learning takes place in a classroom. Even at a school like ours, 95% of our kids are not going to have the chance to play college football. It gives these kids and opportunity to play in a big game.
“It’s kind of a celebration for the student body and the school.”
The biggest game this weekend might be on ESPN on Saturday, when Booker T. Washington (Miami), the No. 1 team in the Super 25 rankings, plays at No. 6 Norcross, Ga.
“It’s a good experience,” Booker T. Washington coach Tim Harris said. “It fits in with the college-ready concept that we talk about here. Now, when they get to college, playing on TV is something they’ve already been through. It’s something they’ll never forget.”
Santa Margarita (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.) is playing St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) on Fox Sports 1 on Oct. 11. Santa Margarita coach Harry Welch sees the positives, but he worries TV games encourage misplaced priorities.
“From a high school coaching standpoint, we’re almost prostituting ourselves putting high school games on TV,” Welch said. “It’s high school football. It’s supposed to be something for the family and friends and people to come to have a good time.”
Patrick Crakes, Fox Sports’ senior vice president for programming and research, said more high school broadcasts could be added.
“I think there’s room to grow,” Crakes said. “I wouldn’t put a cap on it. When it comes to things like high school football, you have community rivalries and folks caring about the team. That translates big and small.
“I think it’s compelling all over the place. You can enjoy watching these games even if you don’t have a rooting interest.”
Dan Margulis, senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU, said the network has no plans to expand its high school coverage, even with Fox entering the fray.
“I can only talk about what I deal with from the ESPN networks,” Margulis said.
“It’s the right number for us. It has worked out nicely. Anyone starting something new, because this is a consistent product where rights may be available, there’s always the opportunity to grow. We like doing this because a lot of the kids we feature (in high school games) are the next college players.”
Because few, if any high school teams have a national following, much of the coverage on ESPN’s networks revolves around top recruits in the games, rather than the games themselves.
“We focus on recruiting and how that ties into the all-star games and our signing-day coverage,” Margulis said.
That aspect irks Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which with PlayOn Sports is launching a digital network to cover high school games.
“I struggle with that part of it,” Gardner said. “We try to think about not focusing on individuals, but instead the team aspects and the good stories.”