A year and a half ago, I wrote a column about how our efforts to live stream local high school sporting events were being compromised by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), which governs high school sports in our state.
At the time, I said this: “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.”
I’m sorry to report that we have reached the final chapter in this saga. We have decided to shut down the Sound Live Sports Network, which has been providing live streamed video broadcasts of Edmonds School District high school sporting events since 2013.
And while I won’t place all of the blame on the WIAA, their stance on live streaming playoff games didn’t help us one bit.
To recap, for several years a group of adult community volunteers have worked with Edmonds School District students and staff to feature online broadcasts of boys and girls sports at the district’s four comprehensive high schools — Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood, Meadowdale and Mountlake Terrace.
The idea was simple: With the oversight of district broadcast production and journalism teachers, the Sound Live Sports Network — or SLSN for short — provided educational opportunities for ESD students in running live sports broadcasts. We included them in as many aspects of those productions as possible. And we also involved them in covering their own high school teams as they reach post-season play — including basketball games at the Tacoma Dome and softball games in Lacey.
And that’s where the WIAA comes in.
In recent years we had to stop our playoff coverage of our local teams. That’s because we were being charged “broadcast fees” for every playoff contest we covered, due to a 10-year contract the WIAA signed with the privately owned NFHS Network.
We applied for waivers as a student organization but were told that our only choice was to become part of the NFHS Network School Broadcast Program. We had tested that system and found it be unworkable for our needs, requiring us to run the NFHS national ads when we had our own local sponsors, like Action Jackson Plumbing and Edmonds Community College. Our journalism advisor also raised concerns that by using NFHS, they would then owns the copyrights to his students’ work — something that he doesn’t have the right “to sell.”
This week, we had an opportunity to share our experience during a Washington State Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee work session Aug. 16 at Bellevue Community College. The topic was related to legislative oversight of the WIAA, and it referenced a bill — SB 5583 — sponsored by Sen. Mike Baumgartner.
We were invited to offer our testimony because someone had read the earlier column I wrote about our experiences.
The room was filled with parents, current and former athletes and coaches, and many of them had stories to share about the WIAA. The bottom line for many of those speaking was this: When parents or students or officials don’t like a WIAA decision or rule, they have no recourse for an appeal. There is no oversight.
As Sen. Baumgartner noted in his statement of support contained in the bill: “The issue here is to investigate how we can bring more oversight and accountability to something that is very important to many people’s lives, sports at the high school level. I believe strongly that the citizens and the voters should have someone who can pick up the phone and complain to if they feel somethings are not going correctly in issues that can impact their lives.”
Currently, the senator added, the Legislature doesn’t have much oversight of the WIAA. The bill would address that by requiring that any proposed WIAA rules, policies and amendments be made available to the legislature and the public by Jan. 1 of the year of the proposed adoption or repeal — and they could not be adopted or repealed until the legislative session was over.
That lack of oversight and accountability certainly affected us, when we discovered the WIAA had signed away broadcast rights for high school playoff games. And that point was explained during the Aug. 16 hearing, when Angelo Comeaux, Mountlake Terrace High School Career and Technical Education teacher and co-founder of SLSN, offered his testimony before Sen. Baumgartner’s committee.
While Comeaux’s spoken remarks were cut short due to lack of time, he provided a full transcript of them for the committee, and he also shared them with us.
He noted that in 2013, SLSN paid $75 per team for the entire run at a state tournament (all games). In 2015 the rights fees jumped to $250 per game.
In 2016, a conflict again rose between SLSN and the WIAA over state competition rights fees. “This time I requested to see the contract with NFHS, whose terms I was being held to,” Comeaux wrote. “I was denied.” The reason provided by WIAA in an email? “The contract with the NFHS is considered confidential.”
Comeaux said that further efforts to obtain a copy of the contract were unsuccessful. A reporter for the Mountlake Terrace High School student newspaper, The Hawkeye, even made a formal freedom of information request and that was denied.
“Clearly the WIAA is accountable only to itself,” Comeaux said. “I support legislation that will increase transparency of the WIAA.”
Not everyone support’s Baumgartner’s bill, of course, including the WIAA. In the bill report, there is a “con” summary statement that describes the process in place for how the WIAA operates and involves its 410 member schools. The statement notes that there are nine WIAA districts, each with a board, and there is also a executive board. “If someone has a problem, they would normally go to the school’s athletic director and work up the chain,” the con statement says. “When they don’t want to do that, they go directly to WIAA.”
I can’t speak to the validity of other WIAA complaints brought up during the Aug. 16 hearing. (You can watch the entire testimony, which was recorded via TVW, here.) But I can say that the Sound Live Sports Network did go directly to the WIAA with our concerns and we were not able to resolve our issues. Angelo Comeaux and other MTHS staff even met with WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese, but he wasn’t willing to change the organization’s stance on fees assessed non-NFHS members for streaming playoff games.
And in the end, we had no recourse but to accept the fact there was a 10-year contract — one that they wouldn’t share with us — and that there was no one to appeal that decision to.
I also need to explain more fully the decision to stop our SLSN broadcasts. The WIAA’s actions were one element of a broader picture that influenced our decision. Another major issue for us: We were a student-based program but we struggled to maintain a regular pool of students who wanted to participate. We explored a variety of ways to increase that engagement, but couldn’t find a sustainable solution.
How is that connected to the WIAA? Let’s say you’re on the high school basketball team. Everyone on the team wants to reach the playoffs and, ultimately, the state tournament. It’s a goal to strive for — not just to play the games but to have the total experience. Riding on the team bus to state. Staying overnight with your teammates in a hotel. Experiencing the thrill of elite competition. Before the WIAA raised its fees, our broadcast students who covered our state-bound teams got to look forward to that same experience. They wore press credentials and sat on the sidelines next to professional sports reporters. 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.
Now that we can’t afford the streaming fees, we are no longer able to offer that type of experience to our student broadcasters. It certainly didn’t help our recruiting.
Earlier this summer, we met with school district administrators to explore ideas for supporting the program. But it was clear that — with all the other issues on their collective plates — live streaming of high school sports was not a priority for them.
For us, providing this service was always about creating opportunities and memories — both for the student crew members who participated and the student athletes we covered. Equally important, we were committed to providing a way for relatives, friends and alumni to watch games no matter where they were.
Sitting on the sidelines of numerous athletic contests over the years was a labor of love for all of us. We are sad to see it end.
— By Teresa Wippel, Publisher