Exclusivity contracts limit student journalists’ live sports coverage

When Hannah Daly went to cover her school’s competition in the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section boys’ 2013 water polo championships, she expected the process would be similar to that of regular-season games. Mira Costa High School, where Daly is a sports producer for the school’s Mustang Morning News broadcast, was one of California’s top-ranked water polo teams, and students were interested to follow the team’s progress throughout the postseason.

However, when she called CIF officials a few days before the championship to request a credential, Daly received an unwelcome surprise: She wouldn’t be able to show Mira Costa’s championship game live, like the Morning News does usually.

“They also said I can only shoot highlights — six highlights, two minutes apiece,” Daly said. This was because CIF had a contract with Fox Sports West granting it exclusive rights to live broadcasts, she said.

Such contracts are common in several states, to the frustration of student and professional journalists. After a 2011 ruling by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated Wisconsin’s Interscholastic Athletic Association had a legal right to sign contracts for exclusive live broadcast and webcast coverage of high school sports games, other state athletic associations followed suit.

School policies increasingly impose broadcast restrictions — such as limiting live broadcasts, liveblogging and post-game coverage — as a condition of receiving credentials. Journalists say the policies are convoluted and hinder them from fully doing their jobs.

For high school students, the ability to broadcast playoff games live over the air and online allows them to get a sense of the fast-paced, high-pressure world of sports reporting, advisers said. In states with restrictions, the limits are “crushing,” said Adam Dawkins, who advises student reporters at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo.

RJ Live, Regis Jesuit’s broadcast journalism club, produces live online streams of regular season games, but PlayOn! Sports has exclusive rights from the Colorado High School Athletic Association to show postseason games. CHSAA’s new bylaws, passed this year, state anyone wanting to broadcast a high school game online or on TV must obtain permission from the association first — live or otherwise.

The contract between CHSAA and PlayOn! prioritizes profits for the organizations at the expense of complete reporting, Dawkins said.

RJ Live uses PlayOn! Sports’ equipment to broadcast live — but viewers have to subscribe and pay a fee to PlayOn! to watch, he said. But because the subscription fees are more expensive than postseason game tickets, viewership of RJ Live’s broadcast is low, said Joe Quigley, one of RJ Live’s sports reporters.

“From a student’s standpoint, we would like to have playoff games for broadcast be free to our viewers,” Quigley said. “We would like it if our own broadcast that we self-ran remained free for our viewers.”

Both the Alabama High School Athletic Association and the Florida High School Athletic Association have similar bans on livestreaming and control credentialing for championship games.

AHSAA does not allow news organizations to livestream any postseason events, and those who want to broadcast full games with a delay must pay the AHSAA broadcast fees, said Ron Ingram, AHSAA’s communications director.

In Alabama, high school sports journalists are barred from providing play-by-play analysis in real time but can provide updates online each quarter, Ingram said.

“We provide a play-by-play anyway, if anyone wants to see the live play-by-play right on our website,” Ingram said. “We try to discourage liveblogging like that because it makes it harder for them to be a good reporter.”

Some state athletic associations have drawn fire for their policies. In September, the New Mexico Activities Association updated its policies governing coverage of scholastic sports, which the state’s press association argued are unfairly strict.

Included in those new directives are bans from broadcasting two consecutive plays during a postgame show and a requirement that all credentialed media either be a limited liability company or registered to conduct business in New Mexico — restrictions that essentially disqualify high school media. The NMAA has the right to deny a credential “for any reason whatsoever,” according to the policy. Kevin Goldberg, an attorney for the American Society of News Editors, said the most restrictive new rule is one forbidding radio commentators from discussing coaching styles or referee calls.

State athletic associations should place a higher priority on credentialing high school and other student journalists, as education remains one of the primary goals of high school sports, Goldberg said. Student reporters are performing legitimate journalism and should be treated as such, he said.

“A lot of negotiations done with credentials are with the state press associations,” Goldberg said. “I would just hope that as (associations) do things … they’re incorporating students into the process. Every sport is something that’s part of the educational process … and it’s always been clear to me that student reporters are not given enough consideration in any of these situations.”

Quigley said while he has had a good working relationship with Colorado’s athletic association, he wishes officials would ask school journalism programs for their input when deciding on their reporting policies. Daly echoed that, said she wished officials had been more proactive about notifying student journalists of the policies.

“It’s (CHSAA) supposed to be promoting sports and activities and things like that among our other schools so kids can succeed,” Quigley said. “By putting limits on broadcasting, it’s limiting our ability to flourish in a high-pressure playoff situation, since it’s not live anymore.”

Michael Hernandez, the Mustang Morning News adviser, agreed, saying that while he doesn’t believe state associations are intentionally limiting student journalists’ broadcast and webcast capabilities, they simply don’t pay enough attention to their needs. High school journalists deserve to give their peers the experience of live sports coverage, he said.

“It (a playoff game) is a student event … and therefore the students should all have affordable access to it,” Hernandez said. “One of those ways is having the media be able to cover it. The media allows people who can’t go to have access to that.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer.