Sports Networks Increasingly Interested in Showing High School Stars

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  • ESPN will show 15 high school basketball games this season featuring the sons of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
  • LeBron 'Bronny' James Jr. and Zaire Wade headline next generation of high school stars attracting national media coverage.
What's new growth area for sports networks? Try relatively inexpensive high school sports, which is producing next generation of stars.
LeBron ‘Bronny’ James Jr. Photo Credit: ESPN

Is high school the next growth area for sports networks?

With media rights for pro and college sports costing billions of dollars, media companies are increasingly eyeing relatively inexpensive high school sports that could have national appeal. The growth of streaming and OTT platforms is allowing media companies to cover high school games that wouldn’t make it to linear TV.

That is perhaps no better exhibited by ESPN electing to show 15 high school basketball games this season highlighting ‘Bronny’ James and Zaire Wade’s Sierra Canyon High School.

Nicknamed Bronny, LeBron James Jr. is the 15-year old freshman son of Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James. Zaire Wade, a 17-year-old senior, is the son of retired Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. 

Two games featuring this season’s loaded Sierra Canyon squad in Los Angeles are earmarked for the linear ESPN2 and ESPNU TV channels. The other 13 will be shown digitally on ESPN3. 

Dan Margulis, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions, cited interest in the younger James and Wade, as well as the Trailblazers’ nationally-ranked Ziaire Williams and BJ Boston, for the coverage decision.

“Sierra Canyon is in two of our linear games due to having the number 5 and 9 recruits not to mention the story of Zaire Wade and Bronny James,” said Margulis. “There is a strong national interest in this and because of that, we were able to clear 13 more Sierra Canyon games on ESPN3.”

ESPN’s coverage led some NBA players to joke the younger James is getting more airtime from one of the NBA’s two national TV partners than they are this season. 

“LOL, they got more than us,” tweeted Washington Wizards point guard Isaiah Thomas.

Overall, ESPN’s 2019/2020 high school basketball slate includes 37 games: 11 on the linear ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU Channels; and 26 digitally on ESPN3. The schedule will feature 68 ranked players and 17 ranked programs.

That’s up from 24 total games in 2018/2019 (11 linear; 13 digital) and 11 games (all linear) during the 2017/2018 and 2017/2016 seasons.

Media rights fees for high school sports are tiny compared to pro/college, running hundreds or thousands of dollars. While the financial barrier to entry is low, the decentralized nature of high school sports makes it a herculean undertaking.

There are literally thousands of high schools, hundreds of conferences and dozens of governing bodies. Control over the rights may depend on the state where the school is located, whether the school is public or private and their membership in various governing bodies.

That’s where middlemen like Paragon Marketing Group come into the picture. Back in 2002, the Skokie, Illinois-based company secured the rights to put a Cleveland high school basketball phenom on local TV.

Instead, they took 17-year old LeBron James to ESPN. The Worldwide Leader in Sports nationally televised the game featuring James’ No. 23 St. Vincent-St. Mary High School beating No. 1 Oak Hill Academy. The Chosen One scored 31 points. The era of live, nationally-televised high school games was born.

Eighteen years later, ESPN still works with Paragon to put its high school schedule together. Here’s how it works: ESPN tells Paragon what windows it has available to show high school games. With its intimate knowledge of the high school scene, Paragon picks out the best teams and players that fit ESPN’s requirements.

Paragon deals with coaches and superintendents at “thousands” of high schools nationwide, said Rashid Ghazi, a partner at Paragon.

“It’s a detailed process that requires a lot of diligence, a lot of relationships and a lot of understanding of different schools and different school’s needs. One of the reasons we do it is we are experts in the youth space, we’re experts in the high school space. And we can help ease the process for ESPN to make decisions on what teams we want to put on, what opportunities exist and where are the places to go,” said Ghazi.

“You’ve got to remember, most of these high schools don’t have sports information directors. A lot of schools have athletic directors who are extremely busy running sports day-to-day. So for ESPN, we serve as that one-stop-shop to navigate this world and being experts in it.”

Digital has “completely changed” coverage of high school sports, added Ghazi. The NFHS Network, for example, now streams thousands of high school sporting events nationwide, both live and on-demand.

ESPN has “always been a significant player” in high school sports, noted John Kosner, the 20-year ESPN veteran turned founder of Kosner Media. Due to its longstanding relationships, and the flexibility from ESPN3 and ESPN+, the sports giant has been able to enhance its high school coverage this year.

That extension to covering high school sports stars is only likely to further increase, predicted Kosner.

Fan and media interest are already building around the next young expected star – Emoni Bates, a sophomore small forward from Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Mich. 

ESPN ranks Bates as the No. 1 recruit in his 2022 class. He’s been called the “next Kevin Durant” by Forbes.

READ MORE: Overtime Aims To Be Next ESPN For Generation Z

Now, these budding teenage stars are experts at using social media to turn themselves into national, and even global brands before they’re legally able to vote.

Bronny James, for example, already boasts nearly four million social media followers across Instagram and Twitter. 

“What’s changed is that the top (high school) athletes are far savvier about their own media presence and creation than previous generations,” said Kosner, who has teamed with former NBA Commissioner David Stern on the new Micromanagement Ventures investment firm. “You also have new Gen Z media companies like Overtime that really help bring them to life, and expand their audiences globally.”

While it’s easy to take today’s blanket coverage of college sports for granted, it was only a few decades ago that only a few games had national relevance. A similar path may be possible for high school sports as more media outfits take advantage of a low barrier of entry due to smaller rights fees.

That’s one reason start-ups like Brooklyn-based Overtime have prospered. Overtime has used its expertise in high school sports as a springboard to cover all sports as well as launch long-form shows featuring Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons and Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

“Overtime is accelerating interest in (high school) sports by both telling – and letting the players themselves tell – their stories,” said Kosner.

There’s always been interest in high school sports, according to Paragon’s Ghazi. Before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a young Lew Alcindor of Power Memorial Academy sold-out arenas.

But the advent of the Internet and technology is enabling the brightest young stars to become national brands overnight.

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As more states ease up travel schedules, more schools are playing national game schedules and showcase events. Social media has enabled high schoolers like Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball stars to become influencers before they turn pro.

“High school sports have gone from local to regional to national…There’s a large interest in watching these kids play,” Ghazi said. “Not just seeing highlights of them. But seeing full games. The kids themselves are becoming social media entities.”