In their growing attempts to offer local coverage to attract interest to both newscasts and websites, more than half of the news-producing stations across the country now include prep sports coverage. Football and basketball still get the biggest play, but with many stations now making high school sports a year-round feature, everything from wrestling and riflery to girls’ volleyball gets its share of coverage.
Once the purview of small-town stations, coverage of high school sports — and all the fan-filled paraphernalia that goes along with it — has become an increasingly important part of local newscasts in all but the largest markets.
With large and medium markets joining in during the last five or so years, more than half of the news-producing stations across the country include prep sports coverage. And it’s not just football — as stations are airing everything from basketball to bowling, says Jaime Spencer of Frank N. Magid Associates.
In many cases, on-air coverage is boosted by lively websites that encourage users to vote for games of the week and upload video. The online component of stations’ high school sports coverage is “huge,” Spencer says.
“In our research we actually see interest in high school sports being stronger on digital platforms than in the newscast,” he says.
Stations in larger markets are covering prep sports not only in greater numbers but also with greater intensity. They are going beyond the scores and game highlights to offer profiles of teenage athletes and coaches and human interest stories, all with the idea of creating deeper connections with viewers.
Bob Papper, a Hofstra University journalism professor, sees the growth in prep sports coverage as “part of the long evolution of sports coverage and sports focus since cable and ESPN came along, exacerbated by the Internet.”
“Real sports fans haven’t looked to local TV for years as far as professional sports and, in many cases, big-time college sports,” he says. “That stuff is old news by the time the sports block of the newscast is on.”
“As with the focus in the rest of the newscast, it’s all about local,” he says.
The way stations approach prep sports coverage ranges greatly, with some stations airing regular, daily stories while others focus on big game wrapups.
During football season, WAGA, the Fox O&O in Atlanta, airs a half-hour prep sports show at 10:30 p.m. Friday, and features a “team of the week” on Thursday mornings (that segment becomes a non-sports high school story in the off season.).
In Indianapolis (DMA 26), WRTV, the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate, last year launched a subchannel dubbed HTSN (as in Home Town Sports & News), which covers everything from prep football to girls’ volleyball and bowling, says GM Larry Blackerby.
About a third of the channel’s 24-hour programming schedule is consumed by equal parts of high school and college sports. The station will add minor league baseball to the mix in April. The rest of the airtime is filled with a local news, weather and a sports wheel produced by WRTV.
During football season, WRTV and HTSN cooperate on “Friday Football Frenzy,” a daylong affair devoted to a particular game of the week.
The event kicks off at 5 a.m. on WRTV, which broadcasts live from the host team’s school throughout the day and encourages viewers to watch the game live that night on HTSN. HTSN, in turn, promotes WRTV’s newscasts.
In Boston (DMA 7), Fox O&O WFXT has been tackling the human interest angles. It ran a story in February profiling Alex Reid, a varsity basketball player from Falls River with a prosthetic leg; last September, the station aired a story previewing a game between longtime rivals, one of whose coach lost his wife just days earlier.
During football season in Washington (DMA 8), NBC O&O WRC includes a high school sports feature during its 5 p.m. newscast and previews a game of the week at 6.
Once a month in Chicago (DMA 3), Tribune’s flagship WGN gives a high school athlete of the month a spot on air and online, right there alongside the Bears, Cubs and Bulls.
Football and basketball still get the biggest play, but with many stations now making high school sports a year-round feature, everything from wrestling and riflery to girls’ volleyball gets its share of coverage.
Atlanta’s WAGA gives debate teams airtime; in Pittsburgh (DMA 23), KPXI, the Cox-owned NBC affiliate, even includes high school musicals in its prep coverage “to include those who may not be as athletically inclined,” says Creative Services Manager Karen Lah.
Station executives say the on-air and online efforts are paying off, boosting community engagement as well as revenue.
“No one has ever solved the problem of how to get teenagers to watch newscasts and what we have done here is tap into something relevant to them,” says Anzio Williams, the news director at KCRA, Hearst’s NBC affiliate in Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto (DMA 20).
The portion of that station’s website devoted to prep sports, www.kcra.com/high-school-playbook, gets “thousands of votes” during football season choosing a game of the week. Those games are then featured on the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on Friday nights.
In Cincinnati (DMA 35), another Hearst station, NBC affiliate WLWT, makes “into the mid-six-figure range each year” from the prep sports section of its website, www.wlwt.com/high-school-playbook, with revenue growing about 15% a year,
says General Sales Manager Mark DiAngelo.
Covering high school sports also has been a promotional boon to stations, executives say.
Pittsburgh prep sports fans, for example, know to flash signs at the WPXI helicopter, coined Channel 11 Skylights, which frequently flies over high school games.
WAGA has spun off its prep sports coverage — on newscasts, on special shows and online — into its own brand, “High5Sports.” High5Sports even has its own its own mascot — a hand — that has taken off with fans, as has the “in your face” tagline that goes with it. The station has aired pictures of people from sports figures like Mike Ditka and Charles Barkley to babies with their hands covering their faces.
Only time will tell whether upping prep sports coverage helps local newscasts come out ahead, but it can’t hurt.
“To say [high school sports] is the savior of sports jobs is overstating it a bit,” Spencer says. “But when we look at what the newsroom of the future [will be], it certainly is going to have more room for creating compelling local content. And if sports can be creative, compelling local content, then it certain is going to help.”