Brimming with swagger, the top-ranked Allen High Eagles burst from an inflatable tunnel, rip through a paper banner, and sprint past a giddy gauntlet of pompom-waving cheerleaders at the season-opening Tom Landry Classic. It’s Zero Week of the 2011 Texas high school football season, and a sense of urgency flows from the field to the stands to the press box.
“You got the chat while I’m writing?” says Jeff Andrews, a stringer for ESPN Dallas, to his colleague Travis Brown as the Eagles kick off to Cedar Hill. Brown takes over the live chat with thirty-six readers as Andrews bangs out a story about the undercard game from tonight’s doubleheader at Southern Methodist University. By the time Allen and Cedar Hill reach the second quarter, Andrews and Brown have posted a story and photo from the early game on the ESPN Dallas website.
Three chairs down, Matt Reagan, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, tweets game updates, plugs stats into a spreadsheet, and updates the live box score. At the other end of the press box, three Dallas Morning News staffers hammer away at their own coverage, including a live chat, tweets, and stories, while a stringer freshens the News’s SportsDayHS website and mobile app with play-by-play updates.
Time out. Press boxes have always been full of harried reporters scribbling stats and hustling down to the field to snag post-game quotes for tomorrow’s paper. But in Texas this season, prep scribes got a whole new understanding of deadline pressure. Newsrooms unleashed a torrent of real-time coverage, the latest gambit in their ongoing effort to make money online. High school football fanatics now can stay digitally engrossed in the game’s minutiae to a degree never before possible: play-by-play action, live box scores, real-time chats, and user-powered updates—all from a quick glance at their smartphones, tablets, or computers.
High school football may seem an unlikely candidate for a lucrative niche market, one that would attract advertisers and app developers. And in most places, it would be. But this is Texas, where football is a way of life. If you’ve read Buzz Bissinger’s warts-and-all 1990 book Friday Night Lights, or seen the movie and TV series inspired by it, you know what I’m talking about. Historian Joe Nick Patoski, who spent two years curating a high school football exhibit for the Texas State History Museum, estimates that more than 100,000 players take part in the sport statewide, with hundreds of thousands more students involved in activities surrounding the game. Throw in the parents, boosters, teachers, friends, relatives, and fans, and it adds up to a highly motivated, and engaged, digital audience.
The most aggressive suitor of that audience, for the moment, is The Dallas Morning News, which last fall launched a real-time scoring project that featured live play-by-play coverage of about fifty games a week. The initiative, which includes a $1.99 app for the iPhone and Android, is believed to be the first of its kind for high school sports. “It’s taking local to another level,” says Mark Francescutti, the News’s senior online managing editor of sports. The ambitious plan drew industry-wide attention as a new wrinkle in how the news business might mine niche audiences. News managers hailed it as a “competitive advantage” over mainstream rivals like the Star-Telegram, whose high school football site, dfwVarsity.com, offers a mobile app, real-time chats, statistical databases, and box scores, and two-year-old ESPN Dallas, which covers a handful of local games every weekend.
The strategy, News managers tell me, isn’t to instantly cash in on $1.99 downloads of the app, but rather to piggyback on the paper’s existing freelance structure—most real-time coverage is handled by stringers—and expand a high school presence that already includes print and online coverage as well as TV and radio partnerships. The News’s most recent two-year package advertising deal for high school sports generated roughly $700,000 in revenue. A flood of real-time scoring updates creates even more page views to sell.