College sports are currently embroiled in a “should we pay student-athletes” debate, largely because the NCAA infrastructure has developed into a multibillion-dollar empire. New York City appears ready to take the first step toward that debate with its high schools.
The New York City public school system is currently negotiating a two-year, $500,000 contract with the MSG Varsity Network—a Cablevision network dedicated solely to high school sports—for the television rights to its high school sports teams, according to the Associated Press. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy is expected to approve the contract (once finalized) on July 20, the AP reports.
“We are extremely pleased at the prospect of becoming the official sports network of the Public School Athletic League, and believe that a partnership between MSG Varsity and the PSAL will deliver significant value to New York City students, parents, educators, and the community at large,” MSG Varsity said in a statement.
Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the district, told the AP that the school system would use the contract money for high school sports funding.
As the New York Post suggests, the deal stands to benefit any student-athletes looking for extra exposure in an attempt to score an athletic scholarship, as well as fans of lesser-televised sports like lacrosse, field hockey, and wrestling.
Now, there’s clearly a difference between this $250,000 annual contract and the $300 million, 20-year contract that ESPN inked with the University of Texas earlier this year. With most high school sports operating at a loss, it’s not like $250,000 for the entire district warrants a stipend for high school athletes.
And it would be entirely hypocritical of me to suggest sponsorships as a potential source of revenue for their sports teams while pooh-poohing NYC’s TV contract move.
But this ultimately touches on a much larger philosophical conversation: What is the purpose of high school sports? How much importance should sports hold compared to academics?
With schools entering TV contracts for their sports teams and selling sponsorships on their scoreboards, there’s reason to believe that sports would only become more heavily emphasized at the high school level.
Then again, a 1989 article from the New York Times about national televising of high school sporting events spoke largely to those fears and proves that we haven’t advanced all that far down the slippery slope in the 20 years since.
Back in 1989, the NBC- and Cablevision-owned SportsChannel America was negotiating to televise the first-ever national high school basketball game of the week. The company eventually thought that nationally televised games could lead to the creation of a national high school sports tournament, much like the NCAA basketball tournaments.
Brice Durbin, the then-executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, told the Times that he originally opposed the idea of a national championship, but came around on the idea.
“If it’s good, if it’s educationally sound, it could happen,” Durbin said. “The last thing we want is to make the program so important that it becomes the reason you go to school.’'
So, will New York City’s still-to-be-finalized TV contract lead to the unraveling of the high school sport structure as we know it? There’s little chance of that.
But high schools should keep the current mess of college sports in mind when negotiating these contracts. The last thing high schools should want is to attract more of the seedy subculture that’s already pervasive throughout high-profile sports at the college level.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.