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Livestreaming on the Small Screen: the New Way to Watch High School Sports During a Pandemic

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Many fans of high school football in Northeast Ohio couldn't go to games in person this season. They instead used livestreaming technology to watch and support their favorite players and teams.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the experience of sports spectators of all kinds, including avid high school football fans.

The pandemic has affected the number of people who are permitted to watch high school football games in person at many schools, including Stow-Munroe Falls High School, where senior Clayton Mosher's extended family has attended every game.

Family members had even driven up to three hours from their homes in other parts of Ohio to watch Mosher play wherever the games took him. Now, in the midst of a worsening pandemic, Renee Davis, Mosher's aunt, and the extended family have had to settle for watching him on the small screen this season, including the night of Oct. 16 when he competed in a playoff game at Mentor High School.

Davis' daughter, Jenaye McNeal, joined the family with her two boys, Kyer and Kindrin, to watch the game on TV.

“We would have been driving the 2.5 to 3 hours to watch multiple games in person though, even though we don’t live there. The boys got jerseys for Christmas so they could wear them in person at his games this year,” McNeal said as we chatted over Zoom.

“So we’ve tried to take pictures of the boys in the jerseys and send to Clayton since he’ll never see them in person in them.”

Kyer and Kindrin McNeal pose in their special made jerseys to support their older cousin Clayton in person before the pandemic hit.
Jenaye McNeal
Jenaye McNeal
Kyer and Kindrin McNeal pose in their custom-made jerseys in support their older cousin, Clayton, who plays football for Stow-Munroe Falls High School.

The living room may be a bit more comfortable, but McNeal says it’s not always the best view.

“It’s very inconsistent what kind of stream you get. Last week it literally glitched every three seconds, and of course it would was at, 'The throw's in the air' and—glitch—'and he’s on the ground.' Did he catch it or did he not?” she said.

I experienced firsthand the difficulties of getting a high school football stream to work. It wasn’t until Davis offered me the ability to log in to their cable TV account that I was able to watch the game. This was after nearly 20 minutes of trying to connect with the stream.

Schools have been challenged trying to provide this service.

“I’m not a tech person. I’m an athletic director and a coach, so I don’t know anything about this kind of stuff,” said Carley Whitney, assistant athletic director at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron.

She says once the school figured out the technology, the streaming created opportunity.

“It’s been a blessing because more people like sisters and brothers who are at college [can watch]. Grandma and Grandpa can watch in Florida,” Whitney said.

At North Royalton High School, Athletic Director Bo Kuntz took advantage of an offer from Flux Live, a local livestreaming service.

“And their only request was if they could have a seat in the press box that they would do it for free. And I basically told them they could have all of our home games,” Kuntz said.

Flux has accepted donations for the service.

For high schools, streaming has becoming a necessity to maintain connections with fans who can’t be in the stands. Tim Stried, Ohio High School Athletic Association Director of Communications, said in an email that while the organization doesn't track the number of schools livestreaming games—from football to volleyball— he estimates close to 80 percent are doing so.

While streaming gives fans a way to see games, it cannot replace the revenue schools have lost in ticket sales.

At the OHSAA, Stried says it lost some $2 million alone from the cancellation of state basketball and wrestling tournaments in the spring and the remaining spring sports, when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began.

Stried estimates high school athletic departments have lost 75 percent or more of their normal revenue this fall. And the loss of revenue is likely going to continue.

As will the need for streaming says Bo Kuntz, North Royalton City Schools Athletic Director, says the need for streaming high schools sports will likely continue as well.

“During the pandemic, I see this as something you have to do because with the orders from the state we’re getting right now [for crowd size at athletic events], our numbers to put in a gym are going to be ridiculously low,” Kuntz said.

Whitney thinks streaming is here to stay.

“It’s had its challenges, but I think overall it’s been extremely positive and will probably just take off as sports continue to go on. I think it was at one time a luxury, and now I think it’s going to be more of a need honestly,” she said.

While the game I watched remotely with the Davis family was close, Stow ended up losing to Mentor 31-14. Clayton has committed to play football at Indiana Wesleyan University.

While they may not have been able to see him in action from the stands in his final year in high school, they’re hoping to once again see him on the field next season in person.

This weekend, six championship games for Divisions II-VII will be played. Go to OHSAA.org for more information on how to watch the games.

Sean Fitzgerald is an announcer/board operator at Ideastream Public Media.