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Live streams help widen audience of high school sports

Technology helps grow trend that took off during COVID

By , Columbian staff writer
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5 Photos
Prairie High School's first-round state volleyball match, which took place in Yakima last week, broadcast by the NHFS Network, shown on a laptop and iPhone.
Prairie High School's first-round state volleyball match, which took place in Yakima last week, broadcast by the NHFS Network, shown on a laptop and iPhone. (Meg Wochnick/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As busy as home-event days can be for high school athletic directors, hands-off technology is the least of Paul Huddleston’s worries at Woodland High School.

“That’s what I love about it,” he said. “I literally do nothing. They run themselves.”

Huddleston, the school’s AD since 2010, is talking about the new automated cameras mounted atop Woodland’s gymnasium and Beaver Stadium that live stream events without a need for a human operator or a push of a button.

High school sports are becoming more high-tech behind the rise of live-streaming options — from independent play-by-play broadcasting networks to automated cameras fans can watch free or with a monthly subscription, depending on their school.

Larger school district-sponsored broadcasting teams, like at Battle Ground, Evergreen and Vancouver, continue to broadcast events through various mediums. But over the past year, more schools have opted for up-and-coming live-streaming options to showcase their home events.

When high school sports returned in condensed COVID-19 seasons during the 2020-21 school year, Woodland was one of the first schools regionally that live-streamed events through its YouTube channel using Hudl Focus cameras in its gymnasium (basketball, wrestling, volleyball) and stadium (football, soccer). Automated cameras became a lifeline for fans to stay connected when, for a time, COVID state guidelines restricted spectator attendance at high school venues.

Now, those cameras are here to stay.

Since then, Woodland joined the National Federation of State High School Associations’ NFHS Network, and two Pixellot cameras were installed last winter at no cost. Fans can watch any varsity or sub-varsity event for a monthly fee.

What makes these automated cameras unique is that there’s no human element; multiple lenses and algorithms track movement, and are programmed to turn on prior to an event’s start time.

Set it and forget it.

“It’s pretty much foolproof,” Huddleston said.

NFHS charges fans $11.99 per month for live and on-demand/pay-per-view viewing — whether it’s one school or unlimited schools nationwide. Schools also receive a small percentage of NFHS’ subscription fee as a revenue share kickback.

But a revenue stream isn’t the end-goal. At Woodland, Huddleston said being part of the NFHS Network has not impacted the school’s game attendance or gate revenue. Now, as president of the 2A Greater St. League, Huddleston hopes all 2A GSHL schools will follow suit with NFHS Network participation.

The NFHS Network partners with 44 high school state associations to provide fans the ability to stream high school sports on any device. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is in its ninth year partnering with the organization, WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman said. Hoffman estimates three-quarters of Washington high schools are now NFHS Network members. The goal is 100 percent, he said.

Ideally, Hoffman said, “every school would have the ability to stream.”

“If people aren’t necessarily going to come out to our events, we want to stay connected to them. And if students who are playing have friends and family around the country or around the world and they want to watch, that’s great. It’s a way to continue to highlight what our students are doing.”

Class 1A school La Center isn’t part of the NFHS Network, but uses Hudl Focus cameras to live-broadcast events inside its gymnasium and at La Center Community Stadium through the La Center High School Athletics YouTube channel.

Athletic director Matt Cooke is in favor of keeping broadcasts free for fans via Hudl. Soon, Cooke hopes to purchase a portable camera for high school baseball and softball games, or use it for other school-sponsored events across the district’s three schools.

“We want to have that ability to have that portable camera to do a lot of events around La Center,” he said.

And it’s not just automated cameras in schools that have grown in numbers recently, but live-stream broadcasting networks, too.

Love of sports fuels startup

At the start of each broadcast, Nick Sisson asks listeners and viewers to type in the comment section where you’re watching from and who you’re rooting for.

Sisson, a Kelso High graduate, is the owner and play-by-play broadcaster of Southwest Washington’s independent live-broadcast network, Northwest News Media, or N2 Media. Sisson launched N2 Media in 2020 and specializes in high school sports coverage at Mark Morris, R.A. Long and Ridgefield high schools.

As the business grows, so does Sisson’s experience as a broadcaster. He previously worked as a car dealership finance manager, but past networking opportunities with former Trail Blazers play-by-play radio announcer Brian Wheeler and ex-ESPN host Kenny Mayne helped inspire Sisson to finally jump on his long-standing dream of sports broadcasting when COVID hit.

An initial sales pitch to R.A. Long in the 2020-21 school year has garnered more than 1,200 followers, 200-plus broadcasts, and a viewership that’s reached countries halfway around the world.

“It left me with a satisfaction that money can’t buy,” Sisson said. “It’s really humbling to know that the goal of what you’re trying to do is actually coming to fruition.”

Sisson uses two cameras at events with help from a production engineer and camera operator. He recently transitioned his platform from Facebook to subscription-based UScreen. His vision for N2 Media includes student involvement from area high schools, eventual sideline reporting, and expanding broadcasts to more schools.

Sisson isn’t afraid to step out of his comfort zone. He recently broadcast golf, slowpitch softball and volleyball for the first time, and one of his biggest takeaways since launching N2 Media is balancing what to broadcast and gauging what the viewership might be. But Sisson has learned that what he provides goes well beyond numbers.

“It’s more about diversity and trying to incorporate as many different athletes and as many different families into this platform that we’re going here,” he said.

While Sisson’s N2 Media gains traction, Paul Beattie was ahead of his time when he launched Eli Sports Network, also known as ESN, in 2011. What began as audio-only internet broadcasting of 2A Evergreen Conference events has transformed into the state’s largest NFHS affiliate, showcasing more than 50 regular-season events per month.

Beattie spent two decades in radio before realizing a new direction was needed. In 11 years since launching ESN, video has become a mainstay.

“I had no idea how, when or where it would come together,” Beattie said. “I had to wait for that opportunity to present itself.”

That came in 2017 when the WIAA asked ESN to help broadcast the Class 2A state basketball tournament. Since then, ESN continues to grow their number of broadcasts. Last winter, with the help of freelance game broadcasters, the network broadcast 180 state basketball games in four days across the WIAA’s three sites: Spokane, Tacoma and Yakima. At state volleyball in 2021, it broadcast nearly 150 matches, and did 48 state soccer matches. It also had its inaugural broadcast of state bowling using a trio of streams. In 2021-22, ESN broadcast more than 1,200 events.

Will they broadcast every WIAA state championship event?

“We’re not there yet,” Beattie said, “but that’s our goal.”

Beattie estimated viewership last school year ranged between 900,000 and 1.2 million. That includes 550,000 live-viewers.

And that’s why Beattie’s focus remains delivering for fans.

“I like being there for those who just seriously can’t get to the game,” he said. “We want to see the stands full. We want that excitement at the stadium. That’s what high school sports is about. But if we can help folks out when they can’t get there, or they can watch it again, then that’s great.”

As high school sports turns more high-tech, live streaming is here to stay — whether through automated cameras or live-stream broadcasts.