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Friday Night Sites

Interest in stations' high school football coverage spikes 10/31/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Call it the grand opening of GrandStadium. Later this month, four stations across Kansas will offer live streams of two high school football state championship games on the new sports site GrandStadium.TV.

A joint venture between station Website host WorldNow and sports consultant Stu Swartz, GrandStadium offers student-produced and -hosted Webcasts of school sports events on a pay-per-view basis. Those who can't make it out to the big game can shell out $9.95 to watch on GrandStadium.TV.

Station managers talk endlessly about being hyper-local, and there's nothing more local than the Friday night football game. “We think high school sports is the untapped market,” says WorldNow President/CEO Gary Gannaway.

Gannaway and Swartz are out selling the concept to stations, which will split revenue with GrandStadium and states' sports associations. KSTC Minneapolis recently signed on, and KWCH Wichita, KTKA Topeka, KOAM Joplin-Pittsburg and KCTV Kansas City—all owned by different companies—are on board to stream the Kansas title games Nov. 29.

KWCH/KSCW President/General Manager Joan Barrett says relatives of players, especially those outside the state, will have no qualms about paying up. “Maybe it's a player's dad who's in Iraq who wants to watch the game,” she says.

As football season steams toward the playoffs in many parts of the country, stations are taking major steps to increase their coverage of football and other school sports. WHO Des Moines and WTOL Toledo, among others, have partnered with local sports outlets to boost their coverage. Local TV LLC's WHO has joined forces with Iowa Sports Connection to launch Live Prep Scoreboard, pushing scores to its Website, mobile platform (that had 12,000 page views in a recent week) and a ticker on its Weather Plus digital channel. Raycom's WTOL has merged with Buckeye Cablevision's sports network BCSN to form The T Sports Network. VP/General Manager Bob Chirdon says the move boosts his sports crew from 2½ bodies to 30, and increases Friday night football coverage from 20 minutes on WTOL to 90 minutes on the two outlets.

“People can get national sports scores a hundred different places,” notes Chirdon, who says The T gives the station the chance to cover as many as 18 local games on a Friday night. “This gives us an image and a brand that others can't match.”

Stations are increasingly tapping students to contribute content. GrandStadium's Swartz, formerly the general manager at KMSP Minneapolis, says kids get school credit for producing games. (But KSTC Station Manager Susan Wenz, for one, says she may skip student productions for a fully professional approach.) Hearst-Argyle's HighSchoolPlaybook, Belo's HSGameTime and Fox's MyFoxHilites sports/social networking concepts, all of which turned 1 year old this past fall, rely heavily on student participation. Hearst-Argyle's KCCI Des Moines tallied 161,000 votes for its Game of the Week in just two days last week, says News Director Dave Busiek.

Fox's WFLD Chicago recently relaunched its FoxHilites microsite as FoxJox, with the tagline “You shoot it, we'll share it.” Students upload video, sound off on message boards and watch the Clip of the Week; Walgreens is among the sponsors of the game of the week. “Part of the reason why we developed it is that we can't cover sports from 700 schools,” says VP/General Manager Pat Mullen. “This gives us the opportunity to be hyper-local at so many schools.”

Multiple sources referred to high school contests as the last untapped territory in sports programming. Stations are also keen to connect with an age group that typically does not consume local news.

Schurz's KWCH added the “My Locker” social networking component to its popular (and profitable, says Barrett) CatchitKansas.com sports site, whose sponsors include Taco Bell and Ford dealers. It also offers home pages for more than 100 area high schools.

Fox's WJBK Detroit recently launched its “MI-School” microsite for students to not only talk sports, but blog and share videos; Chevrolet is a sponsor. “It helps us get young people onto the site,” says VP/General Manager Jeff Murri. “Maybe it's the first time some of them engage with a local news Website.”

Once the pigskin is put in storage, stations turn their attention to the winter sports. KWCH will feature bowling, volleyball and diving, among other less heralded pastimes, on CatchitKansas. “We run the gamut,” Barrett says. “It's not just about varsity football and basketball.”

E-mail comments to michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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