As the pandemic bore into the summer months, many parts of the nation began to move away from the pain associated with canceled high school sports and performing arts events and toward the hope that some sort of a fall season was on the horizon. States’ decisions to play, to delay, or to not play at all rolled in, and a national snapshot slowly took shape.
In the places where state association activities were allowed, social distancing practices that were instituted all but wiped out in-person attendance. These safety policies, coupled with the uneasiness many were experiencing at the thought of leaving their homes, sprouted another major dilemma – how would people see the games and performances?
Hello, live streaming.
Although live streaming in the high school realm certainly wasn’t a foreign idea prior to the COVID outbreak, there is no debating its usage and popularity across the country has reached heights never before seen.
The NFHS Network, a streaming service stemmed from a partnership between the NFHS, its member state associations and PlayOn! Sports, has expanded its reach this year and will be affiliated with 10,000 high schools by the end of 2020-21. Undoubtedly, a catalyst in that influx was the Network’s High School Support Program (HSSP), which provides schools two free automated Pixellot cameras for covering indoor and outdoor action after a onetime installation fee of $2,500. Launched in July 2020, the special two-camera promotion – a $10,000 value – is currently in its 10th month serving interested schools.
Other streaming enterprises have seen similar booms based on the burgeoning demand, and while it has been in no way a replacement for live attendance, the year of the “couch ticket” has clicked along quite smoothly. In fact, the transition to online viewing has been so smooth over the past eight months that it could very well become a fixture for the future.
“With the number of schools that are now capable of streaming, society is expecting games to be available no matter where they’re at,” said Mark Koski, vice president of the NFHS Network. “You have grandparents aunts and uncles and casual fans who don’t have a chance to attend the live events, so the streaming world has exploded into more of an option than it ever has been. We’re just happy that the NFHS Network was created so fans would not miss a play.”
Since it had already been streaming games for football, volleyball, soccer, swimming, basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, wrestling, baseball and softball, Baraboo (Wisconsin) High School (BHS) didn’t have to expand its broadcast lineup at all in the wake of COVID. However, like many other schools across the country, it obliterated its previous online viewership records. Last year, Jim Langkamp, activities director for the Baraboo School District, thought the high school had a really strong winter sports season when roughly 13,000 people tuned in for its NFHS Network live streams. This year, that number skyrocketed to 90,000.
“That was the best we had done,” said Langkamp of the previous year’s numbers. “We hosted a lot more events because of our ability to allow more fans in, but the regular season was shorter, too, so it wasn’t like we had seven times more games to explain having seven times as many viewers.”
While the pandemic hasn’t resulted in a huge number of thankful emails from the BHS fan base – most likely due to the longevity (started streaming in 2014) of the extensive multi-sport coverage – Langkamp’s inbox has seen plenty of them over the years. Outside of those who travel for work or are located in different states, appreciative fans include a second-shift nurse who would otherwise miss her son’s wrestling matches, as well as a mother in a wheelchair who watches streams as an alternative to navigating the challenges of attending.
“I’ve always believed that live-streaming events was the best community relations strategy that we have here – giving our parents, our community the ability to watch our events when they otherwise wouldn’t (be able to),” Langkamp said. “There is nothing (the athletic department) has done that has yielded more thankyou emails and all those feel-good communications that we get.”
Langkamp also thinks the abundance of streaming newcomers has altered popular opinion regarding its plausibility at the high school level. Whereas live-streaming may have been previously viewed as something “only the big schools can do,” pandemic-related initiatives such as the High School Support Program have made the practice much more viable.
“I think many schools in the past thought this was kind of a luxury or going ‘above and beyond,’” Langkamp said. “But now that we’ve gone through a year of this situation, I think there is going to be more of an expectation that we keep this going as opposed to just shutting it down and viewing it as something that’s over-the-top.”
Another NFHS Network school, Salpointe Catholic High School (SCHS) in Tucson, Arizona, purchased its first two Pixellots in February 2020 but wasn’t able to use them for sports broadcasts until the fall. When the green light was given, the cameras were critical in overcoming attendance restrictions. Throughout the fall season at SCHS, only two spectators per home team participant were admitted for contests; to avoid spreading the virus from town to town, fans from other schools were not permitted. Guests from both teams were allowed to attend winter sports events, but because of the gym’s relatively small size, the two-per-participant limit remained in place.
Based on the overwhelming success so far this year, the athletic department recently purchased two more Pixellots for use on the school’s baseball and softball fields. With lacrosse and boys volleyball as additional spring sports offerings, Salpointe director of athletics Phil Gruensfelder said there will eventually be a weekend when all four cameras are covering different games simultaneously.
“Our IT guy came to us and said, ‘hey, we need to run all those cameras at the same time to see if we have the bandwidth for all of this,’” said Gruensfelder of the four-camera plan. “So, we did a test run and had the cameras in the stadium, in the gym and the baseball and softball fields all going at the same time and we were solid. We’re just getting underway with our spring seasons and we’re excited to get all of that out to our community.”
Gruensfelder has explored streaming a host of additional events in the gym as well. He has aired the school’s Catholic chapel services and monthly Masses throughout the pandemic; national letter of intent signing celebrations in February and April; and Salpointe Catholic High School Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, which include each team that wins a state championship. The 2020 Salpointe volleyball team was inducted after claiming the Arizona Interscholastic Association 4A State Championship this past fall. The proceedings took place about a week later with the standard two-guest policy in effect in the bleachers and more than 200 people watching the online feed.
“We will continue to live-stream anything and everything that we have in our gym – and it’s not just about athletic events,” said Gruensfelder. “We have a big honors assembly that we typically have at the end of the year where we hand out a bunch of academic awards to our seniors and a handful of juniors and we’ll be able to live-stream that, too.
“I think we’re just getting started with it, to be honest. We’ve publicized that we have these cameras and we’re streaming these things now, but I think rolling it out to our alumni will make it an even bigger deal.”
As Gruensfelder explained, it’s not just the sports programs that have something to gain from live streaming. Center Grove High School (CGHS) in Greenwood, Indiana, is one of the many schools that have utilized online viewing platforms to benefit their performing arts programs.
To offset revenue lost due to a 25-percent capacity limit in the school’s auditorium – a facility that can host almost 1,200 onlookers – and multiple fundraising event cancellations, Center Grove choir director Jenn Dice crafted a plan to offer would-be audience members a chance to purchase virtual tickets to shows.
“Typically, our shows sell out, so, as you can imagine, that would have been a panic for people who were afraid they wouldn’t get to watch their child or grandchild, or their neighbor perform. We knew really early on we were going to have to address that problem with a live stream and fortunately, in our school we have the equipment readily available to be able to do that.”
Paying admission fees for live performances has been a standard procedure for CGHS choir supporters for a number of years, and prices for stream access are comparable to the cost of enjoying the event in person. Dice also brought in a videographer to help provide contrast in the production and avoid the traditional “single- shot” look. An average of nearly 250 people have viewed CGHS’ three streamed choir shows this year, with almost 350 hopping on to see its Best of the Midwest showcase featuring choirs from other schools.
“We hired someone to come in for the performances so that we could have close-ups on the kids and add to the quality of the stream people were getting to watch at home,” she said. “I’m not an expert on how that works but I believe it’s been a fairly simple process to take the videographer’s feed directly into our stream and send it out live, and it has added a lot of value.”
Just after Spring Break, Dice’s choirs will hold their first performance with a 50-percent attendance mandate, an encouraging sign and an unequivocal step toward the day her performers will see a sellout crowd looking back at them. When the auditorium seats can once again be filled, she sees potential in streaming as a way to manage overflow and to continue reaching students’ remote family members and friends.
“I think we’ll continue, but live audiences are a big deal for students,” Dice said. “It’s just like the ‘Friday Night Lights’ situation where the crowd really helps to propel the energy. The same thing happens with performing arts. We look forward to the day when we can use the technology as a resource, but not as the sole avenue for sharing what we’ve been doing. (Streaming) has been a great tool and we’re glad to have it, but we can’t wait to get back to a full house.”
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.