The concept isn’t new: With live access to numerous games, have a host guide viewers to the best plays as they happen, or shortly afterward, so that they never miss a big moment.
The NFL Network’s “NFL Red Zone” and DirecTV’s “Red Zone Channel” have perfected that idea for a number of years on Sunday afternoons, to the delight of pro football fans. It’s like a highlights show in real time.
But can it work for high school football?
Jimmy Goodmon, vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Company, wondered just that. Nobody knew because, as far as anybody could tell, nobody had tried it. He called Nick Stevens, the senior editor of HighSchoolOT.com, last November and the initial planning began for an internet streaming high school version, “HighSchoolOT Live,” which debuted last Friday.
“I think the reaction from a lot of us was, ‘this is so incredibly difficult, I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off,’ ” said Stevens, who first covered high school sports in 2006. “Nobody else is doing this, so I guess the opportunity is endless because we’re already coming up with ways we can make it better or bigger or attract a bigger audience. What it will look like in week 12 will not be what it looked like last week.”
After HighSchoolOT.com successfully streamed a Millbrook-Leesville Road basketball game in February, they knew that they could broadcast one game. But what about following multiple games and going back and forth between them with a studio show?
Stevens and co-host Wayne Bragg are the most visible leaders of the charge into the great unknown for this adventurous and challenging concept.
“Just sitting there thinking about it was overwhelming and everything that would have to go into it and all the people it would take and the technology and equipment and the resources,” Stevens said. “But they kept giving us everything we need to make it happen, so I think we’re well on our way to achieving what they would like to see from us.”
There have been similar radio ventures, including the “High School Football Scoreboard Show” on WVSP-FM (ESPN Radio 94.1) in a prep football hotbed, the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. They have dozens of stringers at games and go from one game to the other for reports. But the logistics aren’t nearly as challenging as they are for a TV show.
“The first thing we did was try to find somebody who had done something like this so that we could get some ideas and talk to them and find out what the challenges were, things that we might not be thinking about and we quickly learned that there was nobody else doing this,” Stevens said. “We’ve been doing this a lot on the fly. We’ve already identified a lot of things that we want to take a look at or subtract or whatever from the show and things that may allow us to do it smoother. There really wasn’t a blueprint for us to follow, so we are creating it as we go here.”
Streaming is the only option because Time Warner Cable Sports has exclusive NCHSAA rights to live televised games. Regular-season games air only air Thursday nights, with play-by-play announcer Chris Edwards, the play-by-play voice of Duke baseball, and color announcer Jay Sonnholter. This week, the Southern Durham at Cardinal Gibbons game airs at 7 o’clock on TWC channels 77 and 323.
“What we’re doing is also something that is a little more futuristic because the future of broadcast is probably not television or radio, it’s probably streaming like we’re doing right now,” Stevens said. “People are watching more and more video on their phones, on their tablets, on their computers and people are cutting the cord and not subscribing to cable and satellite. What we’re doing is we’re making it available pretty much everywhere else but television.”
“HSOT Live,” which airs at 6:55 p.m. Fridays, is available via computer, tablet or phone, on the HighSchoolOT.com mobile app, or on the WRAL app for Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.
In addition, the audio for “HSOT Live” airs on WCMC (99.9 The Fan). In previous years, WCMC aired a game of the week. That game of the week has become a video streaming broadcast with Bill Zeoli doing play-by-play and Dennis Cox providing the color. Both are part time board operators for CBC’s sports radio stations.
Unlike the commercial-free Red Zone channels, there are four 2½–minute commercial breaks each hour. While the Red Zone channels have access to every NFL game on a given Sunday afternoon, “HSOT Live” is limited to seven or eight high school games.
But even doing that is a monumental task.
In addition to the game of the week, which this Friday is West Johnston at South Johnston, the show has access to several other games. Last week, there were seven total games, and this week there are eight.
This week’s other featured games, each with a crew of one and with no on-site announcers, are Cleveland at Garner, Holly Springs at Wakefield, Orange at Northern Durham, Rolesville at Heritage and Sanderson at Fuquay-Varina. New this week, two crews from the much-acclaimed “Football Friday” WRAL-TV show will be sent to Jordan at Green Hope and Leesville Road at Panther Creek to allow for replays but not live
Users can go to HighSchoolOT.com and watch the “HSOT Live” show, the game of the week or any of the other featured games.
Both of the Red Zone channels have one host — Andrew Siciliano for DirecTV’s version and Scott Hanson for the NFL Network’s version — but no color announcer. “HSOT Live” adds that wrinkle with Bragg, the former head football coach at Panther Creek and Holly Springs high schools, who also was an assistant coach at Northern Durham.
“Mostly, we thought that it added an element to the broadcast that we otherwise wouldn’t be getting,” Stevens said. “Wayne has a lot of coaching experience at the high school level locally and he’s got a good personality for it. I think the more voices that you can get into high school football, especially when you’re trying to break it down, I think it makes the product better.”
Bragg (at left in above picture, with Stevens on the right) worked on the WCMC radio broadcast of the game of the week last season with James Alverson, who is now the NCHSAA’s assistant commissioner for media relations, special events and publications. This is all new for Stevens, whose previous on-air experience was as a “Football Friday” reporter and co-host for radio shows.
Another reason to have two announcers is that many of the feeds don’t have on-site announcers. The Red Zone channels generally go live to the game announcers. For “HSOT Live,” they can only do that for the game of the week and for Middle Creek home games. Middle Creek has a student-run broadcast of home games done through a program called The Sports Block run by the school’s Digital Media Academy.
“It’s up to myself and Wayne Bragg to know what’s going on, identify the players on the field and what’s happening,” Stevens said of the games without on-site announcers. “That gets interesting. Last Friday night we had 14 sets of rosters sitting out in front of us during the entire show. Keeping up with that was a lot.”
At one point, a No. 3 scored a touchdown and there was no No. 3 on that team’s roster. “Tom Suiter always said don’t go by the rosters because they’re always wrong,” Stevens said. But that’s all they have to go by for the games without on-site announcers.
Pulling off this studio show requires a crew of about 17 people, which includes two people running replay machines, a producer, an associate producer, a floor manager and people to handle graphics and audio. Stevens says there are more people in the control room for “HSOT Live” than there are for WRAL-TV newscasts. The crew includes staff from WRAL-TV, WRAL.com and HighSchoolOT.com.
Stevens says that his producer, Kelly Riner, who also produces “Football Friday,” is a crucial part of the broadcast. (Riner is to the right in the above photo, alongside, from left, WRAL-TV’s Pete Sockett, Jim Rothschild and Tony Gupton.)
“She did an outstanding job on Friday night making sure we knew where we were going and what we were going to be looking at,” said Stevens, who will also contribute to “Football Friday,” which features Jeff Gravley as host after Suiter’s retirement. “Everything went so much more smoothly than we had expected. It was almost scary how smooth it went, and she gets a lot of credit for that. She kept us on pace and on track about what we were going to see and where we were going next.”
During the commercial breaks, Riner tells Stevens the plan for the next few minutes. That, of course, is one play away from completely changing. When that happens, Riner informs Stevens about the “audible.”
“This is definitely an adventure,” Stevens said. “We are treating this like a big experiment. We don’t know how big it can get, we don’t know what directions we can take it. We don’t know what different things we can add to it. I think that’s part of the excitement around it.”
Could the “HSOT Live” concept eventually find its way to television? That’s mostly out of their control because of NCHSAA rules, which currently only allow the live Thursday TWC broadcasts during the regular season.
“The board of directors has always shied away from allowing live broadcasts on Fridays and the main concern of the membership, through the board, has always been gate revenues in football, which in turn fund most of the other sports programs at the school,” Alverson said. “We are always examining the changing landscape of media, but at this time we feel this is the best policy for the NCHSAA membership as a whole.”
Stevens would welcome any changes in that policy, and questions whether the arguments about televised games hurting revenue for schools still are valid.
“I think that’s been debunked multiple times,” Stevens said. “I think the deal that Time Warner has had with the NCHSAA with Thursday night games has shown that that’s not really an argument that is valid across the board. Hopefully that’s something that will change and open up to more people in the future.”
If you aren’t a TWC subscriber, there are no live TV N.C. high school football games available. Dish Network subscribers, meanwhile, have access to live games from other states through regional sports networks.
For now, “HSOT Live” can bring several games to you, even if you are attending a game.
Raleigh & Company, HighSchoolOT.com and 99.9 The Fan all are business units of Capitol Broadcasting Company.