With 3:18 remaining in the third quarter of the March 14 game between T.C. Williams and Bethel, officials signaled for a TV timeout.
For a few seconds, it seemed nobody on the court was sure what was taking place. The players on both teams had already lined up for a foul shot before being ordered to the sidelines.
The confusion was understandable. This might well have been the first TV timeout ever called in the history of Virginia schoolboy sports.
“This was a first for us,” says Eric Meyrowitz, general manager of WDCW-TV (that’s Channel 50 over the airwaves), about airing the game as part of a high school basketball marathon.
From a sporting standpoint, the broadcasts allowed locals to witness the end of two startling streaks: Northern Virginia is the state’s population center and has been for some time, but no Northern Region team had won a basketball championship in 27 years before T.C.’s 70-57 win over Bethel, the Tidewater school (and alma mater of Allen Iverson) that went into the title tilt with a 29-game winning streak.
But more noteworthy, the WDCW programs marked the first time in memory—and, according to the folks behind the broadcasts, perhaps the first time ever—that the state championships were aired on over-the-air commercial television in this market.
“But we’d like to make it a tradition,” says Meyrowitz.
Meyrowitz bumped a Friday fixture, WWE Smackdown, to make room for the station’s initial foray into high school sports. And, even with Wrestlemania just weeks away, rasslin’ fans didn’t light up the switchboard to boo and hiss.
Neither did viewers of any of the other programs that were removed so WDCW could show the boys and girls finals of all four divisions of the 2008 Virginia High School League hoops championships—nearly 17 hours of high school hoops over two days.
“Nobody complained,” Meyrowitz says. “The big surprise for us has been that people were calling the station and e-mailing the station even before we aired the games thanking us for doing it. Normally, we air programming, it goes off, and if somebody doesn’t like it, we hear from them. Here, the community was thanking us before it aired. That’s very rare in this business.”
Television is, of course, a business. And anybody wanting to argue that broadcasting high school sports means that kids were being pimped out could find fodder.
The replays shown on the T.C.-Bethel telecast, for example, weren’t just billed as replays; they were “Allstate You’re in Good Hands Replays.”
Also, big signs for Farm Bureau Insurance hung underneath each basket, and logos for the communications biggie Alltel were on the court. And, again, there were those TV timeouts.
“We had agreed that once we passed the four-minute mark of each quarter, if they hadn’t gone to a break, they would call an official timeout,” says Steve Genett, general manager of WRLH-TV, the Richmond station that produced the broadcasts. “It was for one break each quarter. If a coach called a timeout before then, or there was a break in the action [for an injury], then there was no TV timeout. We had to honor the sponsors’ commitment, but it’s not pro sports, and we knew it was not something the kids or coaches are used to.”
But, as opposed to the three-minute barrages of Bud Light commercials that come seemingly every three minutes during March Madness, the TV timeouts in the T.C.-Bethel broadcast lasted just 90 seconds and, whether by design or good luck, featured seemingly benevolent sponsors. The primary underwriters were the Virginia government’s Family Access to Medical Insurance program—which offers health insurance for kids from low-income families ineligible for Medicaid—and the Virginia 529 College Savings Plan.
The do-gooder ads gave a community-service vibe to the broadcasts, even though the station used breaks at halftime and between quarters to promote syndicated fare and prime-time shows it airs from the CW Network (One Tree Hill, Beauty and the Geek). Just as Meyrowitz hoped.
“We’re a local station,” he says. “We had a chance to air something that would impact on the local community, and we took it. And we’re looking for more opportunities like this in the future.”
Meyrowitz says if Maryland and D.C. put together similar packages, he’d consider broadcasting those, too.
High school sports have been creeping into the television realm in recent years. To exploit the hype surrounding LeBron James during his senior year at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, ESPN began showing regular season schoolboy basketball games in 2002. That network now also has a weekly high school football series, which came to D.C. for a Dunbar-Coolidge game in 2006.
But the Virginians were hoops-broadcast virgins before the 2008 championships. Genett says that Sinclair, the broadcasting giant that owns his station, had produced high school playoff telecasts in Tennessee and Alabama, and he wanted to follow suit in his state. He seconds Meyrowitz’s assertion that broadcasters have started looking closer to home for programming.
“Everybody in TV now wants to be local, local, local,” says Genett, “and there’s nothing more local than your kids.”
The fact that all title games are played in one location each year—the Alltel Center of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond—made the production feasible, he said.
So after signing what he described as a multiyear deal with the VHSL before this season to televise the state finals, Genett put together an ad hoc network of stations that serve viewers throughout Virginia, and WDCW jumped in.
Neither Meyrowitz nor Genett would disclose how much the stations paid for broadcast rights for the Virginia tournament. But high school events typically cost next to nothing compared to college and pro sports deals. For example: In 1999, CBS signed an 11-year, $6 billion contract with the NCAA for the right to air March Madness; the Washington Post reported that Dunbar and Coolidge got just $500 each from ESPN for the broadcast of their matchup.
According to Nielsen overnights, approximately 11,000 local households watched the T.C.-Bethel game. That’s only about one-third as big as the audience that watched Maury Povich’s non-prime-time pregnancy test show on the same station earlier in the day. In fact, ratings-wise, the only noninfomercial WDCW programming the game beat was a 4 a.m. rerun of the George Lopez Show.
But the crowd that the high school games got was the one the station wanted, says WDCW’s research director, Melvin Coronado.
“We wanted to reach out to a new audience,” Coronado says, “to create awareness for Two and a Half Men and Family Guy, really. I think we did that.”