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The big business of high school sports

By - Last modified: October 11, 2012 at 2:17 PM

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In the business of sports, the area that has seen some of the most explosive growth in recent years is high school-level athletics. It’s no longer just a few column inches in the paper or a local AM radio broadcast.

Look at the proliferation of high school games on TV. ESPN broadcast 24 high school games this year. Fox Sports Florida, a regional network like FSN Pittsburgh or Comcast Sportsnet, shows a game every weekend live and in prime time. “Friday Night Lights” was a bestselling book, a movie and TV show that ran for five seasons.

Perhaps no place is making more money off high school sports than the Internet. MaxPreps.com, a site dedicated to high school sports coverage, was launched in 2002 by one guy, Andy Beal, in a small office. By 2007, it had been purchased by CBS Sports for $43 million. It now covers everything down to freshman and JV games.

Other major networks have their own sites as well: Yahoo! has Rivals.com, ESPN has its own Recruiting Nation site, and MSN and Fox Sports operate Scout.com. An Atlanta company called PlayOn Sports offers technology that allows schools to produce their own webcasts for fans. When I tuned in this week, they were showing fourth- and fifth-graders on the gridiron.

Outside school-affiliated games, an entire industry is being built. Recruiting services sell scouting reports and game film to colleges. Other companies offer services going the other way, to help high school athletes draw recruiters to them. Ex-professional players or college stars offer their services as one-on-one coaches for many thousands of dollars.

“Elite” leagues and camps are plentiful. Nike even sponsors a “combine” event for high school football players, similar to the way college players audition for NFL teams. The Big 33, a single all-star game, raised $3.9 million for its foundation this year.

Want a testament to the power of this much coverage? This week, Jacques Patrick from Orlando, Fla., just two months into his sophomore year of high school, received a scholarship offer from perennial college football power USC. That’s two months into 10th grade.

When he chooses his team, he’ll handle it like most talented high schoolers now, who call press conferences on “National Signing Day,” announcing their college choices with flair.

All of this creates an alarming amount of pressure and exposure for the youngest of athletes. It’s also important to note that this money is going into high school-level sports, which also happens to have the least amount of oversight.

The consequences of going too far can be dire. Performance-enhancing drugs become more tempting. High schoolers can risk losing their amateur status and, in turn, their NCAA eligibility. Colleges can face punishments for breaking recruiting rules. It encourages under-the-table dealings from outside parties, such as bribery.

Do you think a school from all the way across the country would be recruiting a sophomore without the focus on high school athletes there is now? Not a chance, not without easy access to highlights, stats, scouting reports.

Oh, and that USC offer? That was Patrick’s 12th scholarship offer so far, from schools all across the country.

Bill Sayer is a financial analyst in the insurance industry and holds a degree in economics. A native of Upstate New York, Bill enjoys watching college football, the NFL, NHL and Premier League soccer from his home in Palmyra. Have a suggestion, link or question?

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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