IHSA pay-per-view webcasts here to stay

Kyle Grillot - 
Marian Central senior Brett Olsen falls while trying to stop Montini junior Leon Thornton III  from scoring a touchdown during the first quarter of the Class 5A second round football game between Montini and Marian Central Friday in Woodstock. Montini won the game 40-7.
Kyle Grillot - Marian Central senior Brett Olsen falls while trying to stop Montini junior Leon Thornton III from scoring a touchdown during the first quarter of the Class 5A second round football game between Montini and Marian Central Friday in Woodstock. Montini won the game 40-7.

When Jay Schulz and his colleagues from Harvard Community Radio traveled to Rockford last month to broadcast the Class 4A football state quarterfinals, he was admittedly concerned about how good the webcast would be.

Working with equipment suited for a high school journalism class while depending on an unreliable Internet connection and using an amateur videographer shooting with a handheld camcorder, Schulz knew the potential for problems beyond his control existed.

Making matters worse, Schulz knew some Harvard fans would need to pay to tune in.

As part of a new partnership between the Illinois High School Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), some football fans who didn't to travel to playoff games this year were charged $9.95 to watch the webcast of games like Harvard's quarterfinal loss to Rockford Lutheran.

Playoff games webcast on the NFHS site were blocked out from other media outlets, like the Northwest Herald's, after a Sangamon County judge's Nov. 2012 ruling on the matter.

For Schulz, who works as unpaid volunteer producer for the Harvard radio station – which offered local residents free webcasts of Harvard home games throughout the Hornets' season – asking fans to pay nearly $10 to watch high school football just didn't sit right.

"I would have a hard time paying to watch an NFL game," said Schulz, who produced the Harvard webcasts throughout the season.

"My big issue with (charging a fee) is that (the IHSA) can't control the quality on our end. They're charging people for something they have no control over....At Rockford, it just didn't work very well."

In July, the IHSA agreed to enter a partnership with the NFHS, joining 33 other states who are part of a subscription-based broadcast model. The IHSA had streamed games online for 10 years without charging.

IHSA Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha said on Thursday that the IHSA initially declined to join the partnership due to the short amount of time that existed between when the pay-per-view model was introduced to the IHSA board in April and when it was agreed to in July.

But that changed when NFHS entered a partnership with Comcast, the state's largest cable provider. That deal, Troha said, was a "game-changer", making IHSA broadcasts accessible at no additional charge for Comcast customers, via a password, to the company's estimated 2 million cable customers in Illinois, northwest Indiana and southwest Michigan.

But for those who don't subscribe to Comcast services, watching playoff games without paying for it wasn't an option. Instead, those viewers were charged $9.95 for a day pass, giving them access as many IHSA events as they wanted for a 24-hour period as well as other events from other states that were streamed on the NFHS Network site.

For the state semifinal round, the IHSA offered viewing 13 of the 16 games – all of which would have been available to people who paid the pay-per-view fee.

Troha said on Thursday he won't have access to viewer numbers for the entire playoff football season until early January. Single-game viewership, however, varied, topping out around 200 customers for games like Naperville Central's 8A quarterfinal game against Neuqua Valley.

Regardless of how many watched, charging fans to watch high school athletic contests wasn't overly popular with many.

Prairie Ridge athletic director Mark Gilbert learned about the pay-per-view model before the Wolves' run to the 6A state quarterfinals began. Gilbert said while he doesn't know how the pay-per-view model will affect Prairie Ridge in the future, he never promoted the subscription-based webcasts simply because he wanted fans to watch the games from the stands rather than online.

In an email sent to athletic directors addressing the pay-per-view model, Troha wrote that the $9.95 represented a cheaper cost than that associated with the ticket price at the gate and gas money needed to travel to the venue.

The model will also be used for playoff games with the exception of state championship games for boys and girls basketball this winter. The pay-per-view rates will also apply to baseball and softball playoffs and state championships this spring.

Troha said revenue from the broadcast is split on a 50-50 basis betwen the NFHS and the schools hosting the playoff games. As was the case in the past with PlayOn! Sports – which provides web streaming services to the IHSA – the IHSA will continue to be paid for the broadcast rights to the playoff games. Troha said the IHSA receives a lump sum for the rights at the start of the year.

The IHSA has worked with PlayON! Sports for the past five years provided playoff coverage at no cost. But PlayOn! then partnered with the NFHS Network, which had already established a pay-per-view model to cover the costs associated with streaming games.

Troha said, while IHSA board members had initial concerns about a pay-per-view subscription program, they felt that because they had an existing working relationship with PlayON! Sports, they would eventually be drawn into the national network and start charging for webcasted events.

In many cases, students provided camerawork. and with some games, the play-by-play as well as conducting halftime interviews. Harvard athletic director Matt Rife said students from the school's multimedia journalism class helped with the broadcasts, providing production experience.

Rife said he doesn't have an issue with students not being compensated, because they understood up front that they were volunteering to work the games. Troha said students haven't been paid in the past but that, in situations when money was paid to schools for assisting with games that were streamed online, funds went to support the journalism classes that worked on the webcasts.

Troha said over the three weeks playoff games were shown between the second round of the playoffs and the state semifinals, he received 10-15 complaints about the quality of the broadcasts from people asking to be refunded the $9.95 they paid to watch. He said those complaints were passed on to the NFHS Network with the understanding that unsatisfied customers would be reimbursed.

Johnsburg football coach Mike Maloney, who watched several of the broadcasts because he's a Comcast customer, said the quality varied from game-to-game. He added, however, that if he belonged to a different cable subscriber, he would not pay extra to watch the games.

Schulz said the Harvard broadcast team ran into issues at Rockford Guilford because they did not have a hardwire connection at the school. Using a 3G wireless connection, Schulz said his team experienced a variety of technical issues, which affected the quality of a broadcast he knew some people were paying to watch on their computers at home.

Troha said the quality of the broadcasts remain a concern at the state level – especially now that fans who don't have Comcast services are having to pay to watch.

"I think (the quality) is getting better and we feel good about (the product) – especially as infrastructure improves at schools," Troha said. "Internet and hard-wiring, press boxes having wireless (access) are becoming more and more important to the learning process on the school side and the athletic side will benefit from that."

Regardless of quality, the notion of charging a fee to watch webcasts of high school sports isn't an acceptable model in the long run.

"But we're just trying to provide a nice service to the general public and I think that's a great thing to provide," Schulz said. "I guess the IHSA can claim that 'this is our product and we can charge for it.'

"But it just doesn't make logical sense."

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