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The soaring popularity of high school sports is undeniable, but could the interest get big enough for a national scholastic sports television network?

More than 6.8 million kids played high school sports in the United States during the 2002-03 academic year. That means almost 14 million parents represent a captive television audience. To say nothing of millions more siblings, friends, relatives and your average sports junkies.

In all, we're talking about a niche market upwards of 25 million potential viewers. Which is a lot considering that if you get about 40 million people to watch the same sporting event, you'll have one of the 50 highest-rated sports broadcasts of all time.

Of course, it's probably not realistic to think even the most rabid high school sports fan would watch any old clash between teenagers. So what is realistic?

National high school sports broadcasts are not unprecedented. The McDonald's All-American Game has appeared on a national network every year since being televised live on ESPN in 1986. The inaugural U.S. Army All-American Bowl football game appeared live on Fox Sports Net in 2000 and remains nationally televised. ESPN broadcast two of LeBron James' high school games a year ago and this past season televised a Sebastian Telfair vs. Darius Washington basketball game and "The Battle of the Big Men" featuring elite centers Dwight Howard and Randolph Morris.

But those are one-shot deals — single events involving newsmakers that capture the imagination of the American sporting public, even if just for a moment. Yet it's only practical to consider the possibility that high school sports could become a more prominent, consistent broadcast entity. Both regionally and nationally. Perhaps even daily.

Dare we suggest that high school sports could be headed for its own 24/7 television network? Before dismissing the idea, keep in mind that 25 years ago ESPN was considered a long shot and few people thought college sports were destined to blanket big-time national TV.

"I've learned in this business never to say never," says Dan Margulis, 33, director of programming for the NFL Network and formerly with ABC Sports, ESPN and New York's regional YES Network. "I don't think it's outlandish to suggest, certainly in a digitally tiered programming era where niche programming is being launched every day. High school sports is probably the next logical step."

That last sentence — particularly coming from a guy with the experience of Margulis — is nothing short of extraordinary. Real important people believe there's a real possibility that televised high school sports will be widely accessible in the triple-digit-channel universe of cable and satellite-distributed broadcasts. Soon.

"It's tough to get networks up and running, but it's not out of the realm of possibility for high school sports," says Rashid Ghazi, 37, a partner at suburban Chicago's Paragon Marketing Group, which co-produced and co-promoted ESPN's high school hoop broadcasts in 2003 and 2004, as well as last fall's De La Salle High (Calif.) vs. Evangel Christian Academy (La.) football clash on ESPN2. "Especially with so many genres of programming that are much smaller niche markets than high school sports. High school sports transcends a lot of demographic boundaries."

"Over the next couple years, I think the definition of a network will change in the eyes of a lot of people," agrees Brian Bedol, 46, president of College Sports Television (CSTV) and founder of the Classic Sports Network (eventually bought by ESPN). "As long as you're flexible with your definition of a network, I think it's very likely there could be a high school sports network."

The competing school of thought is that high school sports fanaticism, while every bit as intense as any other arena, remains and always will be a local phenomenon. Fox Sports CEO David Hill often preaches the notion that "sports are tribal." In other words, what is meaningful to fans of California's De La Salle High is of little interest to fans of Illinois' De La Salle High.

And Hill isn't alone in that belief.

"High school sports resonate on a statewide or a local level, and for that reason I don't think you'll see it go that far (to national network status)," says Jon Horton, 41, executive producer at suburban Seattle's Flying Colours Television, which produces a wildly popular weekly scholastic sports show in association with NBC's local King5 affiliate. "The LeBron James hype was an exception to the rule. What has the attention of people in Washington, D.C. won't have the people in Washington state.

"I just don't know if you'll ever regularly see high school sports on Fox Sports Net," adds Horton. "Because when the big guys try to drop down to cover high schools without knowing what we know working in high school sports every day, they'll fail miserably."

I Want My VTV

So maybe the major networks drilling down to showcase dimly lit gyms and lesser talents than LeBron is never going to happen. But what if those smaller stadiums and stories bubbled up to the national stage? And what if at least one platform for them to do so already existed?

That's where VTV (Varsity Television) comes in. VTV is a teen lifestyle media outlet based in Austin, Texas, that is already available in eight million homes as part of regular subscription cable service or as video-on-demand (VOD) programming. VOD is a common cable-subscription service in which viewers can order a program from a menu and have it delivered instantly to their television set, typically with the ability to pause, rewind, etc.

Incorporated in 1999 and boasting affiliate relationships with 2,500 schools nationwide via their broadcast journalism departments, VTV already offers around-the-clock teen entertainment programming, including the VFL — selected national high school football games aired each week last fall via the 24-hour cable network, VOD and broadband Internet.

The VFL package was invitation-only and composed exclusively of schools historically ranked among the nation's Top 25 prep football teams. Participating teams included perennial powers like St. Joseph's Prep (Pa.), Jenks High (Okla.), John Curtis High (La.), Ben Davis High (Ind.), Hoover High (Ala.), Mater Dei High (Calif.), Westlake High (Texas), Brentwood Academy (Tenn.) and Canton McKinley High (Ohio).

"I firmly believe there will be a 24-hour high school sports network in the future. This is an incredibly untapped market," says Sally Rodgers, 36, VTV's senior vice president of programming. "We dipped our toe in last year with the VFL regionally and nationally in 20 markets, and the download rates for those games were incredible. We're well-postured for more robust coverage next season, and we see the value in it."

Typically, however, such value comes at considerable cost.

Producing a sports event as a game broadcast is already expensive, and the price tag goes up when poorly lit and ill-equipped scholastic venues must be retrofitted to satisfy a television audience. When Time Warner Cable Northeast Ohio produced 10 of LeBron's high school games his senior year (offered at $7.95 apiece to subscribers), the production costs were $5,000 a game.

And when the game is a big enough draw to demand a bigger facility — as was the case with January's "The Battle of the Big Men" at Georgia Tech's $8,000-a-night Alexander Memorial Coliseum — that expense becomes part of the production budget.

But that's the wild card of high school sports. For starters, there could never be a shortage of product. And as the technology for bringing that product to TV becomes more sophisticated at a lower cost, a broadcast-quality telecast could be handed over to a network for airing rather than coordinated and produced by the network itself.

"As the price of cameras and switching equipment comes down and as the expertise of teens shooting the game goes up, the nature of what we perceive as TV is going to change in a revolutionary way," says CSTV's Bedol, whose network reaches 20 million homes via cable and satellite and already broadcasts the And 1 High School Basketball Championship and the ABCD Camp all-star games. "I'm not sure if producing high school sports broadcasts isn't going to be the same a couple years from now as people making their own music or publishing their own newsletter today."

At VTV, the future is now. Teen-created content is already a major component of the programming. But what appears to be the runaway train of high school sports' growing prominence — amplified by circumstances like those at VTV — has Dr. Bruce Svare terrified we're getting ahead of ourselves.

"This is a far more serious issue than people think it is. We really have to ask for whom we're doing this," says Svare, founding director of the National Institute for Sports Reform and author of "Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out." "Who benefits? I'd argue putting high school sports on TV is to serve adults, coaches and commercial interests. And as soon as you start down that road — as soon as you attach a profit motive — you're opening the door to academic corruption and you're dealing a devastating blow to amateurism.

"We've got to go to more of a participation model in high school sports rather than a commercial model," he continues. "It's like Jay Weiner at the Minnesota Star Tribune wrote: ‘We feed the flames of premature fame' with these kids. Some can handle it. A lot can't, and the process makes jerks out of a lot of them."

Regardless, at least some high-profile prep athletes wouldn't object to more face time on the tube.

"It'd be fine with me," says South Oak Cliff High (Texas) hoop phenom Darrell Arthur, 16, who's rated the nation's No. 7 basketball recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports. "I'd be nervous at first, but I'd probably get used to it."

Walter Dix, a 2004 graduate of Coral Springs High (Fla.) and one of the country's top track talents in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, would welcome a national high school sports network with open arms. And he's convinced such a network would enjoy broad appeal.

"I think it definitely has the potential to be popular," says Dix, 18. "Nowadays, you've got kids playing basketball who are of professional size, and you've got (track) kids running college times. We all already keep track of that on the Internet. Why wouldn't a kid in Texas want to see me run?"

Stay Tuned

VTV isn't going to waste any time chillin' with focus groups to figure out whether Dix is right. The network plans to nearly double its viewership — to 15 million — by the end of this year, with the ultimate goal of reaching all of America's 36 million teenagers.

"There's a place on the dial for teen sports," says VTV's Rodgers. "We can't create an entire network right now, but that's not to say this current model wouldn't spin off into a national 24-hour high school sports network. It's just not that far off."

Smaller-scale success stories have made believers out of plenty.

Former NBC and CNN sports staffer Jim Ginocchio, host of a weekly show called "Prep Sports +" on Georgia Public Television, says the Georgia High School Association now schedules the state basketball championships for different classifications on separate nights to accommodate the GPTV broadcast schedule. GPTV has also broadcast the state football semifinals and finals six years running.

"When we first came to GPTV with the idea, they said no one would watch football," says Ginocchio, 43. "The first broadcast did the largest ratings in Georgia Public Television history, and it's only grown since then."

Lou Canellis co-hosts a prime-time, magazine-format show called "High School Extra" on Chicagoland's 24-hour cable news station, CLTV, and continues to be astonished by the demand for scholastic sports coverage.

"When I came to CLTV, my intent was to dump high school coverage," says Canellis, 40, formerly of ESPN Radio in Chicago. "I was almost shot and killed by viewers. What's amazing to me is that we're such a pro sports town, but there's tremendous devotion and commitment to high school sports.

"Where's it going nationally?" he continues. "I think it's going to the same type of arena as College Sports Television, which is out there and making money. I think you'll eventually have enough underwriting to watch high school sports on network TV anywhere in the country."

VTV notwithstanding, high school sports on television will surely become a regional presence before reaching the heights Canellis predicts. Even the NFL Network's Margulis calls a national-network concept a "dicey proposition" with unknown support as far as "financial arrangements."

For now, the most realistic platform appears to be outlets like Carolinas Sports Entertainment Television (C-SET), a 24-hour regional sports and entertainment network affiliated with Time Warner available to customers in North and South Carolina beginning this October and featuring considerable high school sports coverage. Fox Sports Net Southwest already broadcasts a weekly magazine-format show called "High School Spotlight," as well as a live high school football scoreboard show.

The next step might be for scholastic athletics to appear on regional networks owned by pro sports teams — like the Houston Regional Sports Network, owned by the Astros and Rockets, or the Denver-based Altitude Sports & Entertainment, owned by the parent company of the Nuggets and Avalanche.

"I think high school athletics are an incredibly important piece of the local marketplace," says Shelly Harper, Altitude's senior vice president of programming. "But I'm convinced that the interest at the high school level is regional. I don't think it's a financially viable endeavor at the national level. Especially when so many niche networks like the Food and the Fuel networks are already trying hard just to make ends meet."

Even scholastic-friendly ESPN is tight-lipped about when we might see its next high school broadcast.

"We've always said if there's national interest and national appeal with compelling storylines, we'd broadcast it," says ESPN spokesman Mike Humes. "Beyond that, I couldn't speculate."

But never say never.

"The thing about high school sports is that it's such a pure form of entertainment," says Paragon's Ghazi. "Whether you're watching LeBron or some small-town, cross-town rivalry, there's something about the passion these kids display that's unmatched in sports today. If you let yourself get lost in the contest, it doesn't matter who's filling the uniforms. It's appealing to watch."

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