From the Publisher’s Desk: The WIAA’s takeover of high school athletic broadcasts

Teresa WippelLet’s be clear. I am certain nothing will change as a result of this column. Everyone tells me so. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which governs high school sports in Washington state, holds all the cards in this fight.

But after three years of waging what appears to be a losing battle, it’s time to lay those cards on the table.

Let’s start at the beginning. Both my kids played sports at Edmonds-Woodway High School, and my son went on to play college baseball in California. I was able to listen to many of his games for free on the Internet via the local radio station, which followed the college team.

It inspired me to consider how we could provide that same type of service for high school parents, grandparents and alumni who might be traveling or living out of the area, but still wanted to keep track of local EWHS teams. Turns out, a local EWHS dad — who happened to have both a sports and broadcast background — had been thinking the same thoughts. We partnered to create something called Warrior Radio — live streamed audio broadcasts, via My Edmonds News, of football, boys and girls basketball, and baseball and softball games. We brought in high school and college students to help.

Everybody was a volunteer, but we did have to pay for a company to host our live streams, web technical help and the like. So I was able to find local sponsors to offset our expenses. Sponsors like Edmonds Community College and Edmonds Family Medicine and Harris Ford, which have roots in our community and a stake in supporting our kids.

The Edmonds School District gave us permission to do these broadcasts with the understanding that we return a portion of any profits to the local high schools’ sport booster clubs. Depending on sponsorship, some years we have had profits and other years we have not, but when we can, we make a donation.

Our programming grew when I met two teachers from Mountlake Terrace High School — Vince DeMiero and Angelo Comeaux — who for years have run nationally-acclaimed student journalism and broadcast programs. They had already been broadcasting their basketball games using their student-run video studio, and were excited about the idea of covering more sports and giving their students more experience in running live sports broadcasts.

Over the past three years, we’ve expanded to live stream via video varsity boys and girls games from all four Edmonds School District high schools. We call it the Sound Live Sports Network, or SLSN. We don’t have the time, equipment or the volunteers to do all the games but we do as many as we can. We try to give all teams equal exposure, regardless of win-loss record. We are not a slick production and everyone who watches us knows we have glitches — from poor streaming quality due to sketchy wireless connections on the road to novice student camera operators who may forget to follow the ball down the court. But we pride ourselves on being supportive of our local students. It’s all part of the learning process.

Three years ago, in March, we took a student broadcast team down to the Tacoma Dome when the Mountlake Terrace High School boys basketball team played in the state tournament. The students wore press credentials and sat on the sidelines next to professional sports reporters. They worked side-by-side with our adult volunteers, operating equipment and providing sideline reporting for our live streamed broadcast. We found a way to fund travel costs and hotel rooms for those students, and they took pride in being able to cover their school team.

Three years ago, in May, we followed the same process for covering girls softball, when Mountlake Terrace and Meadowdale high schools were in the state finals in Lacey. Our student crew, with adult supervision and volunteer broadcasters, did an amazing job of covering our local teams in the two-day tournament.

But recently, our ability to provide playoff coverage of our local teams has been seriously impacted by a very simple factor: We are now being charged “broadcast fees” for every contest, including district and regional playoffs.

The regional broadcast fee is stiff — $250 PER GAME. But the state tournament? Forget about it. See the charges below. That’s right. Below is what our student crews would be charged PER GAME to do a live Internet stream broadcast for any game at a state tournament. (Use the “championship site” as your guide.)

That’s $1,000 PER GAME for football and $750 for basketball.

fees wiaaThese charges are known as “rights fee,” and they are dictated by the WIAA’s contract with the privately owned NFHS Network, which now OWNS the rights to WIAA State Championship contests.

Bottom line: If you have a student athlete playing in a state tournament, the WIAA has sold the “rights” to your student athlete’s performances at state competitions. This is not just happening in Washington state, by the way. NFHS is a national company that has contracted with high school athletic associations across the U.S.

When we questioned this practice, we were told that the media rights fees can be waived for school broadcasts — IF we become part of the NFHS Network School Broadcast Program. And we won’t be charged if we participate.

While that may sound good on the surface, the truth is that we ran a test with NFHS a couple of years ago and found it be unworkable for our needs. First, it requires that we run the NFHS national ads. We have our own local sponsors, who know our community and our kids. That is our priority. Second, when it comes to state playoffs, viewing games broadcast on NFHS isn’t free. They charge a $10/day fee to anyone wanting to watch a game on their network. We do NOT charge our viewers to watch games on our Sound Live Sports Network — and we never will.

Last year, another of our school district teams — the Lynnwood Royals girls basketball team — went to the Tacoma Dome and ended up winning the state championship. We were told that we would have to pay the exorbitant rights fees to broadcast their games. We protested and the fees were reduced, temporarily. So we sent a team of student broadcasters and adult volunteers to the Tacoma Dome. But the WIAA made it clear that it was a temporary solution and that their contract with NFHS would not allow any future discounts.

Unless we join the NFHS, of course. Additionally, the WIAA’s contract with the NFHS states that our students would have to forfeit the copyright of their broadcast to the NFHS and have to provide the NFHS with a digital file of the entire show – all at our expense. In other words, our students would be working for the NFHS, providing the NFHS with content so that NFHS can profit from our students work. Frankly, at the very least this is unethical.

This week, we have two district girls basketball teams — Lynnwood and Edmonds-Woodway high schools — headed to the Tacoma Dome. We will not be broadcasting those games. We can’t afford it.

And we wanted our viewers to know that.

Besides, even if we could afford $1,000 per game, we would rather donate that money back to our local booster clubs. To help fund things like sports participation fees for those athletes in financial need, or football helmets that now cost more than $300 each, or other worthwhile causes.

Good luck to the Royals and Warriors in their quest for state championships.

— Teresa Wippel, Publisher

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