More than 3,000 fans watched the 2020 rendition of Kalispell’s crosstown high school football game, but that wasn’t obvious to anyone inside Legends Stadium that October night.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the Montana High School Association and Flathead County, fewer than half that number attended in person, but online more than 2,500 fans tuned in to watch every tackle in real time.
Streaming is not a new concept in the age of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, but high school sports haven’t been at the forefront of the online revolution.
Eight years ago, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) began working on a remedy by creating the NFHS Network.
“There are two million high school games played every year,” NFHS Network Vice President Mark Koski said. “The network was created with one goal in mind: to showcase every high school student and game throughout the country.”
So far in 2020, the NFHS network has more than quadrupled its number of subscribers compared to 2019, when only 5,000 schools were streaming games.
The main driving force behind the increase was a $200 million allocation the NFHS made as part of its High School Support Program, which provided two free cameras to more than 19,000 high schools in the country. Any member school was eligible to receive free Pixellot automated cameras and partner with the network to produce live broadcasts.
This year, the NFHS network has effectively doubled the number of schools using the service. Schools that accepted the partnership received two cameras — which usually cost around $9,000 — that could be installed in gyms or stadiums. Subscribers pay a flat rate of $10.99 per month to watch contests live and access years of archived footage, and schools collect a portion of subscription revenue, as well as all advertising revenue from sponsored content that airs during each telecast. The NFHS network is anticipating broadcasting more than 300,000 contests this year, triple what it covered in 2019.
In Montana, 50 additional schools received cameras from the program this year, bringing the statewide total to 133 —three-quarters of all schools in the state, including all of Class AA and A.
Glacier has streamed 48 games during the fall season with mostly positive feedback. Viewership parallels what one might expect of in-person attendance, with varsity football games averaging more than 2,500 live views while some contests, such as junior varsity volleyball games, don’t always get watchers.
Overall, however, both Glacier and Flathead have seen dramatic upticks in their metrics this year —a combined 6,177 unique viewers have tuned in to stream 382 days’ worth of video, up more than 500% from last fall.
“Overall it has been a great way to help fans watch games with the restrictions; however, nothing can replace viewing an event in person,” Flathead Activities Director Bryce Wilson said, also noting that there have been network connectivity issues at Legends Stadium.
In Columbia Falls, the number of online followers has tripled, up to 272, but even though more people are watching than ever, Activities Director Troy Bowman notes that the system worked significantly smoother last year.
“It’s been frustrating that we’re having a tough time getting bugs worked out,” Bowman said. “I feel like I need a help desk or switchboard. [If the stream goes down], the phone rings off the hook or Facebook lights up and everyone has their pitchforks out.”
Koski admits there have been problems with scaling up the size of the network so quickly. The NFHS Network only has 120 staff, most based out of its Atlanta headquarters, who handle everything from promotion to troubleshooting to in-person setup.
“Any time you double the number of schools you work with, that’s double the amount of problems,” Koski said. “The last couple of months have been a flood of questions and installs, but we’ve been able to work through them — we not only want subscribers to have a positive experience but we want schools to have a good experience as well.”
In Bigfork, the high school has cameras in the gyms but just installed its new one in the football stadium before the Vikings lost to Malta on the road in the Class B football playoffs, so it hasn’t been tested yet.
Indoors, however, Bigfork Activities Director Matt Porrovecchio said that when the system works, it’s great.
“So many people adopted it there’s just been a huge influx of kinks to work out,” Porrovecchio said. “But it’s really great for watching past games and for out-of-state fans and grandparents. I think it will probably pull a lot of viewers as basketball starts.”
Koski says the ultimate goal is to expand beyond sports and be a true high school activities platform for speech and debate, drama, band and even graduation ceremonies.
“High school is different than college or professional sports because the community really comes together for the games, whether big Friday night football games or the Tuesday night volleyball game,” Koski said. “I think it’s only going to ramp up as we get more schools’ cameras installed and working flawlessly and get more contests delivered.”