Two ranked football teams. Bleachers packed with fans representing each.
A playoff atmosphere permeated everything about the Class 6A, top-10 game last Friday between Lakeville’s two high schools: then-No. 1 North and South.
Those with a rooting interest who were either unwilling or unable to attend could catch a live video stream of the game on their computer or smartphone.
Once a novelty at the local high school level, livestreaming has become a more prominent part of the broadcasting landscape. The 2018-19 school year marked the first time the Minnesota State High School League livestreamed most of its state tournaments, from football quarterfinals to swimming and state track and field meets, free of charge.
Regular-season events are being livestreamed in greater numbers than ever through outlets such as Prepspotlight.tv and smaller, more school-focused outlets. They serve the needs and expectations of modern sports fans who crave up-to-the-moment information.
But section playoffs, often hotly contested games that decide the state tournament fields, remain an outlier. Only a handful of section playoffs, which begin this week for fall sports, will be livestreamed.
The overriding tension: The regions that administer section tournaments depend on gate revenue to manage their finances. They worry about attendance slipping if local fans have the option of seeing the game via livestream without being there. Not so, counter livestream providers. They maintain that livestreaming games creates a wider interest without hurting ticket sales, especially at the section final games often played at smaller venues.
“We’re in the middle of an opportunity to prove it to them,” said Andy Price, executive producer at Prepspotlight.tv, the high school league’s livestreaming partner.
Live from Lakeville North
Lakeville North, one of the state’s pre-eminent powers across the high school sports spectrum, created its own livestreaming channel and launched an ambitious slate of 97 games and events to be livestreamed for free this school year.
Logan Anderson, the channel’s director of streaming broadcasts at lnpanthers.live, previously worked for Prepspotlight.tv and as a radio broadcaster and advertising salesman in Iowa and South Dakota. Nine community sponsors support lnpanthers.live.
Anderson called concerns about livestreams hurting gate revenue “a fallacy.” He said last Friday’s North vs. South football game drew more than 2,600 viewers. His previous high was 1,100.
“It doesn’t affect the gate, especially when you’re covering teams all year,” Anderson said. “This is an opportunity to build your brand for an entire season.”
Mike Zweber, Lakeville North’s activities director, said, “Across the board, the gates are up this fall when we’ve streamed the games in various sports. Now, it’s too small of a sample size to say if it was weather or matchups. But it definitely hasn’t been a negative.”
Hockey hot button
The appetite for section playoff livestreaming peaks with boys’ hockey. So does the balancing act for those with financial responsibility for the tournaments, who see healthy ticket sales as vital to balancing their budgets.
Section games attract strong viewership. A year ago, State of Hockey, a subsidiary of the Minnesota Wild, and Prepspotlight.tv partnered on the rights and production for free livestreaming of 13 of the 16 boys’ section finals and all but one on the girls’ side.
Two of the boys’ games not livestreamed were the Class 2A, Section 2 and 6 finals, played as a doubleheader at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The games frequently feature some of the state’s top-ranked teams, including Edina and Eden Prairie.
Jon McBroom, Region 2AA secretary, spoke for many of his counterparts when he said, “Since we rely almost entirely on ticket revenue to cover expenses, we can’t afford to give away the product.”
Anne Butters Anderson, an administrator with State of Hockey, said viewership numbers are hard to determine given that many section final games were played on the same night and could be accessed through two different websites. But she remains committed to livestreaming the entire package of boys’ and girls’ section finals because “they are some of the best games and we want to use the exposure to grow the game.”
Several of the state’s 16 regions charge $1,000 to livestream a section final. Price said some regions have “tripled the fees from where we started. We’ve already had to drop some games. And if prices go up, that will affect our decisionmaking.”
Zweber, who has seen a successful balance between Lakeville North’s livestreaming model and gate revenue, understands the concerns at the region level. In seven of the past 11 years, Lakeville North and South met in the Class 2A, Section 1 semifinal or final played about 70 miles away in Rochester.
“If you’re a fan of either one of those teams, driving to Rochester versus sitting on the couch at home is a real concern, especially when the winter weather is not great,” Zweber said. “And it’s more fun for everyone when the building is full.”