The following is a series of articles about the top ten latest trends in prep football in Alabama.
When the Covid epidemic struck in 2020 and the AHSAA decided to play high school football, there was great concern about the attendance at the games. How many fans would be allowed to attend and how close could they sit together? Would they need to wear masks? Would the schools handle paper tickets? In August of 2020, a new group of students, fans, parents, and grandparents were introduced to a new method of watching high school football - the NFHS Network.
The NFHS Newtork had been around for a while. It was created in 2013 by the National Federation of High Schools, the national governing body of high school athletics in the United States. Through the NFHS Network, schools could stream any of their live sporting events online for people to see. The federation enlisted the help of the state associations for aid in promoting the network. Alabama was one of the first states to endorse the endeavor and the first state association to join the network. Former AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese even served as chairman of the NFHS Network Board of Directors.
For a yearly fee of $69.99 or a monthly charge of $10.99, anyone can log onto the network and see any game being broadcast. The game can be seen live or can be seen "on demand", as each game can be archived for viewing at a later date. When signing up for the network, fans can list their home school and the school can get part of the viewing fee. Subscribers can watch the game in multiple ways. The NFHS network has its own app, so games can be seen on the computer, iPad, phone or even on the latest TVs.
But schools were less than enthusiastic in the beginning. The idea of putting games on the internet spread fear through every school administrator, who initially could only see lagging ticket sales, empty seats and no lines at the concession stand in a continual effort to fund a growing athletic budget. There were multiple problems to overcome as well. Stadiums needed a strong internet signal to the press box. Schools needed an additional camera and operator and most press boxes, especially at smaller schools, had barely enough room to accommodate stadium announcers and camera operators for the coaches copy of the game. Even if a football program wanted to broadcast, road games caused additional issues with travel, internet, and press box space. Visting schools had no reason to be cooperative, thinking that you were taking money away from them. In addition, there needed to be someone with some technology skills in charge of the whole operation each week. For most schools, the whole thing was just too much.
Better internet and better access has grown with each year. But in 2020, the NFHS announced a game changing innovation. They offered each school two Pixellot cameras that could be press box mounted. These cameras were automated. They followed the action on the field, wherever the ball traveled, and needed no operator. They could cut on and off by themselves and the feed was sent directly to the NFHS Network. In one swoop, the NFHS Network took care of some of the cost of the equipment as well as concerns about people to man the cameras. Suddenly small schools could see the light to being a part of the NFHS Network. School participation increased by 200%.
At the same time, the Covid crisis created a greater pressure on administrators from parents and fans to broadcast games that many were unable to attend. Many schools took advantage of the automated cameras and started broadcasting with the 2020 football season. Some schools have also created visual technology classes that broadcast different sporting events. These class members run the cameras, promote the events and handle the announcing as well. Such classes help provide the manpower needed to produce the broadcast and provide experience and a great learning environment for students as well. "Our students do a great job," one 5A caoch said. "We haven't had near the problems this year that we had in the past. We have people all over the country watching our games every Friday night."
In 2021, there were over 100 games broadcast each week of the football season in Alabama. There are over 300 Alabama schools participating, although not all are streaming football games. Many schools are simply doing home games on the Pixellot cameras. The camera will occasionally get lost on a deep pass, but for the most part allows the viewer to follow the action pretty well. There is no play by play announcing, but all of the sounds of the game can be heard- the crowd, the bands and even at times the cheerleaders. It is very similar to actually sitting in the stands at the game. Other schools have announcers to do play by play along with the broadcast.
Some programs have expanded the broadcast to make it more of an enjoyable experience for the viewers.
Andalusia High School is one of several programs who have piped in the local radio broadcast onto the NFHS Network feed. This includes the commercial breaks. The advertisers get exposure on radio, on the live stream and "on demand" broadcast as well. The Bulldogs have even included Coach Trent Taylor's coach's show, which broadcasts before the game. Viewers get to see field preparations and warm ups as they listen to Coach Taylor previewing the game on the audio portion.
Opelika High School has created a full blown television presentation, including announcers, multiple cameras, and replays. The Bulldogs pipe in the local radio broadcast on the NFHS feed, complete with color analysis from former Opelika coaching legend Spence McCracken. They even have a van that goes on the road complete with TV monitors, a generator and their own internet. Most importantly, they have a technology guru that runs the whole thing for them on Friday nights.
From the beginning, the NFHS and the AHSAA encouraged schools to be a part of the network and offset their concerns about losing fans by securing sponsorships and advertising. Some schools have been able to do that, but businesses have been a little more reluctant with advertising as the Covid pandemic has created uncertainty in local business.
Most schools are making some money off of the subscriptions but have been reluctant to rock the boat and compete with the local radio station for advertisers. "We aren't a huge community, and our merchants get hit up all the time. I just didn't feel it was right to impose on them again," one head coach said. "We are just glad to get that check from the network, although I'm sure it doesn't make up for the fans we are losing."
On Friday nights, fans that don't attend the game can log on from anywhere on their devices and tune it to the action. One of the best things about the NFHS network is that it has allowed family members, school alumni and those overseas in the service to watch their teams, children, and grandchildren play when it is otherwise impossible for them to attend the game.
It has also created a different way to watch high school football. If the game a fan is watching is suddenly not competitive by the third quarter, subscribers can change to another game or flip between games just like Saturday afternoon college football. With games archived in an "on demand" status, subscribers can go back the following day and watch another local team play, check in on that #1 recruit and his team, or see that overtime game that fans across the state are talking about on social media. High school football fans can watch the best teams and best players across the state compete on any Friday night. "On our open date this fall," one Birmingham assistant coach said, "It was nice to just stay home and watch games on the Network."
It has also led to "game watching parties". Now families, students and other fans can get together and have food and drinks and watch the game just like they do for college football. There just needs to be one subscriber, which has led administrators and coaches back to their concern about empty seats and fans following the team on the road. "There is no doubt it has had a negative effect on our crowds," one 6A coach said. "We have fans setting up outside viewing parties on their big screen TVs." Such fans don't pay for parking, tickets or go to the concession stand.
For many years schools had the same concerns about radio broadcasts. Most came to understand that the fans that could attend were generally coming to the game and that any loss at the gate was eventually offset by the increased exposure that teams got from the radio promotion of the local team and the game. However, schools still believed that it cut down on the crowd teams took on the road, especially on games that required a driving time of an hour or more. "By the time a family of four deals with travel, food and game tickets," one 3A coach from south Alabama commented, "it is just a whole lot easier and much cheaper to listen to the game on the radio or even better now watch it on the NFHS Network."
No football fans love bad weather, and a rainy Friday night in today's world can put over half of your crowd at home on the Network watching the game. This is especially true if the game is not expected to be very competitive.
The NFHS Network has been promoting that "70% of the subscribers for any given event are viewing from outside a driveable distance". That doesn't help the feelings and money boxes of schools who have seen their visiting crowds dwindle. Add that to a season that is not going well for the traveling school and there is plenty of room in the visitor's bleachers.
The NFHS network has also led to another unintentional situation. Coaches will now go on the Network and watch the "on demand" games of future opponents weeks before they will play them. "We can scout the game just like we are sitting in the bleachers," one 7A coach said.
Coaches are in agreement that the NFHS network and live stream are here to stay, but they are looking for better ways to make money off of it without hurting the sponsors they have now. One possibility is using the radio feed and getting the radio station to allow the school to sell two ads and receive the money from those two ads. It may take some "out of the box" thinking. But the Network is here to stay, which is good for fans and has changed high school football forever.
"All in all," one south Alabama coach said, "at the end of the day, the NFHS Network has become one of those necessary evils."