The Sports Fan Base Network is bringing games to fans and families when they can’t be there in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Story by Ray Dunne
Cars cruised by during three long, hot days in June. Students, long removed from their days in classrooms, marched alone in masks.
Garnet Valley High School was going through a drive-thru, COVID-19-altered graduation.
For Ari Bluestein, the CEO of Sports Fan Base Network (SFBN), it was a return to work. His sports live streaming company, largely focused on high school and collegiate athletics, had been off the air for months due to the pandemic. Graduation was the company’s first opportunity of work in months and they had to take advantage of it.
Garnet Valley liked the job done by Bluestein and looked forward to a fall slate of sports in which they could work together again. SFBN had a new client.
Little did they know, the floodgates were opening. Within days, more than half of the teams in a neighboring league, the suburban Ches-Mont league, had reached out to Bluestein about his services and the prospects of working together in the fall.
The revolution of streaming high school sports, long in motion, was set to be accelerated by a lack of fans in the stands due to COVID-19.
Now, it was up to companies like SFBN to get moving.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how are we going to do all these games?’” Bluestein said, remembering his thoughts after he got a call from the Ches-Mont schools. “All the work that we’ve put into this point, trial and error, getting new equipment, trying to get to new schools, has culminated in this moment.”
Launched in 2012, SFBN has been a fixture in Philadelphia’s high school scene in recent years. A lot of the area’s biggest high school games have found their way onto the network and the group has a deal with both West Chester University and Widener University. At its busiest, the network produced nine games in one day in November 2019.
As the pandemic continues to keep communities away from their local field and gyms, SFBN regularly hits nine games in a night and is now putting on about six broadcasts per day. Their clients include 25 new schools and ramped up workloads with another five to 10 schools with which they had previous agreements. Local partnerships with high schools such as Penn Wood and St. Joseph’s Prep deliver nearly every athletic event possible for the schools.
The increased workload has meant a lot of different things. Bluestein, for one, now jokes that he lives on his phone. Postponements, staffing and partnership inquiries eat up the bulk of his day. The company’s master schedule lives on a Google sheet, color-coordinated in a dizzying way for many, that is as alive and changing as a human being.
What’s happening on a given morning at 9 a.m. is hardly the same as what’s happening at 4 p.m.
“Every day I get at least one email, at least one, of a cancelation, a change, or an addition. It’s a guarantee,” Bluestein said. “My life is scheduling.”
From the school’s perspective, there’s a lot to consider in how to deliver these games to fans. For Bluestein, his emphasis on constant communication and competitive pricing to provide a wholesale, professionally-driven broadcast is what has been appealing in SFBN partnerships.
For example, SFBN’s partnership with St. Joe’s Prep has allowed students, who have long been doing games on the school’s online radio station WSJP, to be on-air talents. St. Joe’s Prep Director of Communications and WSJP advisor Bill Avington said it has given the broadcasts a “distinct Prep feel” and the growth of their traditional radio audience has been nearly tenfold in some cases.
“(The audience) shows the need for our video stream. We’ve talked about it internally about how this has really raised the bar for us. We’re going to have to do more video,” Avintgon said of the success. “We’re hearing it from alumni all over the country … it’s been a real benefit for our alumni, parents and the students.”
Avington stopped short of calling the presence of WSJP an advantage since the school still needed SFBN to put the infrastructure in place to successfully deliver the games over the air. Yet their well-groomed student broadcasters, combined with the visual product, have produced incredible viewing numbers. In the school’s most recent basketball matchup with Archbishop Carroll, over 1,500 people tuned in.
The local flare has also been developed at Penn Wood, where school legend and athletic director Rap Curry had started a partnership with SFBN before the pandemic. Curry, as well as other prominent figures from Penn Wood Athletics, have been featured on broadcasts all while continuing to try to get local students involved in the productions.
Student-led production is not the norm, but few schools in the area have had long histories of getting students into the brunt of the work.
Spring Ford’s RCTV, started by the late Steve Bonetz over 20 years ago, has placed a huge emphasis on live sporting events for a long time. The district had been moving toward live coverage of almost every home varsity game before the pandemic and the lack of fans only expedited the process to include just about every junior varsity and varsity game.
Equipped with a state-of-the-art TV studio in the high school and live event production truck, the school puts students to work in on-air and producing roles.
“The foundation we have here is incredible…we have a great group of students right who want to work, want to get the experience,” RCTV Director Andrew Rothermel said. “There is such a strong interest and it really gave the kids the opportunity to come into what they’ve been practicing the past couple years, but do it every single day.”
Again, those in-school operations are few and far between. Most schools in Spring-Ford’s area have been using the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Network. Schools like Methacton, Boyertown and Norristown have all begun to use the network, which has operations in over half of the high schools around the country.
The state of Pennsylvania isn’t quite a stronghold for NFHS Network, as it is “only” partnered with 191 of the 740 schools around the commonwealth, but the growth it has seen is undeniable. Nationally, the network will be partnered with over 10,000 of the country’s 19,500 high schools by the end of the year.
Mark Koski, the CEO of NFHS Network, believes that one day the company can get every high school game, regardless of level, in the country streamed for parents to watch. It’s an ambitious goal that would include nearly two million broadcasts per year, but he feels their model is plausible.
“Seventy percent of our subscribers are subscribing from out of state, so it’s not like we’re taking away from fans that would go to the game,” Koski explained. “When athletic directors are able to open the doors back up…we don’t see that our numbers will significantly decrease but we’ll see them increase as the word of NFHS is getting out, more subscribers happen.”
Due to the financial constraints of the pandemic, NFHS Network has attempted to work with schools by giving them two free Pixelot cameras that have motion sensors and can begin to stream on their own. Their model is subscription-based with schools being able to generate revenues through viewers and sponsors as a part of NFHS Network’s revenue-sharing platform.
Koski notes the subscription model is a way to get back some of the money lost for tickets at the door, helping out struggling athletic departments. The business model isn’t unique to NFHS Network, as a similar broadcast model, is being used by Justagame live web services, which has recently partnered with the Philadelphia Public League.
There is a whole host of secondary struggles for Philadelphia Public League schools with the setup because of the number of different gyms in which a single team can play. While schools like Penn Wood and Spring-Ford won’t ever play home games outside of their gyms, Philadelphia Public League schools are playing in varying rec centers with varying levels of internet connectivity.
The sheer volume of teams and gyms coupled with the strict COVID-19 guidelines in the city have made it increasingly more difficult to get everything off the ground.
However, there remains hope that the Public League will be able to get its footing as sports continue to return.
“With coronavirus…it’s been tough to get a gym, let alone live streaming. As we move forward, I’m optimistic that we’ll see more live streaming,” Public League director and Sankofa boys basketball head coach Isaiah Thomas said. “For some schools, like Andre Noble at Imhotep, he’s been doing for some time so for him, it’s no issue. For other folks, who aren’t in that permanent space or can’t get in that permanent space, there’s been some issues.”
Regardless of the company, partnership, or in-house set-up, there is a clear consensus across a variety of people in the high school sports industry: live-streamed sporting events are not going to go away as fans return to the stands.
Avington notes that alumni across the country have been reaching out to St. Joe’s Prep infatuated with the fact that they could tune in. Bluestein, while acknowledging not every partner may be able to afford this long term, believes the pandemic opened up eyes to the true potential of what he’s been working towards for nearly a decade.
Koski is hoping for fans to return soon, echoing the sentiments shared by Avington and Bluestein that the practice builds a community beyond the confines of a town. NFHS Network’s lead man also believes it’s going to help athletes gain exposure like never before.
For coaches like Thomas, he sees this as a way to get more film to study. Whether it’s to better his team or to better understand an opponent. Beyond that, he believes makes up for some of the exposure lost from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s high school score service being cut over a year ago.
As the world continues to move further into the digital space, the high school sports world is catching up. While there is no substitute for yelling at referees in a gymnasium full of your neighbors, the future of these athletic events is likely to be streaming just a few clicks away.
“In terms of the future, within the next year, it should be about the same (number of schools). If we’re looking at five to 10 years down the line, I think this is going to be a regular part of high school athletics,” Bluestein said. “We’re going to continue to try to expand and provide live streaming for as many schools as they need it.”