Cable Network Begins Second Season of High-School Sports

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With a schedule that reduces the number of football games televised while adding girls' basketball and other sports, the cable network SportsChannel America was set last week to begin the second season of its controversial, five-year contract to broadcast high-school athletics.

On Sept. 14, the network was to show the football contest between two West Virginia rivals, Capital High School, of Charleston, and Parkersburg High School. It was the first of eight high-school football games to be telecast by SportsChannel this fall.

The fledgling network, which is still not available to most cable viewers across the nation, signed an agreement last year with the National Federation of State High School Associations, which represents state athletics and extracurricular-activities groups, to televise about 25 high-school sports events a year.

At the time, critics expressed the worry that precollegiate sports were becoming increasingly influenced by the trappings of "big time" athlet4ics seen at the college level, such as television contracts and corporate sponsorships. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1989.)

Some of that opposition remains strong. John E. Roberts, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said last week that about a dozen state associations, including Michigan's, do not permit their teams to appear on the SportsChannel telecasts.

"We think it creates an overemphasis on athletic activities over the classroom," Mr. Roberts said.

Representatives of SportsChannel America and the national federation maintain that the cable-TV deal has been a success, and that most of the criticism has been off-target.

"What most people discovered were that those fears were unfounded because of the way we presented the telecast," said Dan Martinsen, a spokesman for the network. "We presented a high-school game for what it is. We did not attempt to make it a re-creation of the [National Collegiate Athletic Association]."

And John Gillis, assistant to the director of the national federation, argued that high-school sports would never succumb to the pressures of big-time athletics, because the scholastic contests represent "amateur sports in its purest form."

Under the terms of the contract, SportsChannel is paying the national federation approximately $250,000 per year in rights fees for the five-year contract. The fees have been a sensitive topic for the federation, which has disputed some critics' initial contention that such a contract could bring in several million dollars, as well as undue influence from television producers.

Sports contests to be televised are selected by the federation and the cael25lble network; each participating school receives $1,200. Last year, SportsChannel showed 12 football games, 11 boys' basketball games, and the final game of the Minnesota state ice-hockey championships.

For this year, the football schedule has been trimmed to eight games so that a greater variety of events can be televised, including girls' basketball, officials said.

Schools whose teams have been chosen for the telecasts appear to be satisfied with the setup.

"I know our kids are excited about it," said Roger Jefferson, the football coach at Charleston's Capital High. "I think it is a great idea for people around the country to see different football teams."

"The only thing I'm a little disappointed about," he added, "is that no one in West Virginia can watch it, because we don't get SportsChannel."

Broadcasts 'Not Needed'

Still, some observers remain concerned that the involvement of corporate and broadcasting interests may have a gradual, increasingly harmful influence on high-school sports.

Mr. Roberts of Michigan notes that televised coverage of college sports began on an "even more innocuous level" than the current coverge of high-school sports. But the college game has evolved into a system in which schools vie for the millions of dollars offered by the television networks.

"High-school athletics do not need live national television," Mr. Roberts said. "High-school athletics need greater commitment at the local level to design and deliver programs that allow more students to participate more meaningfully."

Vol. 10, Issue 3

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