HOULTON, Maine — Bob Thompson hadn’t seen a basketball game involving his alma mater since he played for the Houlton Shiretowners during the mid-1970s.

“I bet it was that long ago, probably not since I graduated high school,” said Thompson, who now lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.

That distance between alumnus and team disappeared last winter when Thompson learned from former classmate Ken Holck, the sports play-by-play voice for WHOU-FM in Houlton, that the station was producing live video streams of many of the games it covered through its website.

And once he saw a glimpse of the old school gym, Thompson was hooked.

“We knew they were doing well so I started to watch a few games,” Thompson said. “It was fun to see the people and the games, and it brought back memories.”

Not only did the video streams rekindle memories, but the success of the Houlton boys basketball team prompted Thompson and another classmate, Ralph Cleale, to fly to Bangor to catch the Shiretowners at the Eastern Maine Class C semifinal and championship games.

Thompson watched Houlton win its Eastern Maine championship from a seat in the Cross Insurance Center, then watched the Shiretowners win the state title a week later from a seat back at home on another video stream funneled into a television monitor through his computer.

“I know just from growing up in Aroostook County that if you’re following basketball you’re going to go to every game you can,” he said. “But I think this expands the pie because people like me are not going to be able to get to see it otherwise, and other people who can’t get out to the games now get to see them, too. I only see the video streaming making it all even more popular, really.”

The learning curve

Live video streaming of high school sports is relatively new to Maine, with several companies around the state providing the service.

WHOU-FM of Houlton was among the first when it began video streaming Aroostook County basketball games on its website during the 2011-12 season.

“We always heard about people from away tuning in to our online audio stream to hear their grandkids play basketball,” said WHOU owner Fred Grant, “and I thought adding video to our broadcasts would allow those folks to see their family members play no matter where they were.”

Grant said the response to WHOU’s first “experimental” season of video basketball broadcasts prompted the station to expand its streaming services, which last winter included showing two games on many busy basketball evenings.

While private entities like WHOU seek to keep pace with video streaming technology, schools that provide the ultimate talent — the players and coaches — are experiencing their own learning curve regarding such issues as balancing the promotional exposure that could be derived from the video streams with its possible impact on game attendance.

“I don’t know whether to call live streaming a trend or not, but I think it came on us as athletic directors in general probably faster than anything I’ve seen,” said Doran Stout, athletic administrator at Erskine Academy of South China. “It wasn’t there one day and not only was it there the next day but it was up and running.

“The first time some of us, myself included, ever heard of live streaming was when somebody asked us if they could come do it at our games. It kind of hit us from the side.”

Live video streaming is seen by some administrators as a much more formidable threat to game attendance than the audio presentations traditionally provided by radio outlets — particularly when it involves high-profile sports such as basketball and football that for many administrators subsidize an important portion of their overall athletic budgets through gate receipts.

The Aroostook League in northern Maine and the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference that encompasses 29 schools from Bangor to South Paris and from the coast to the western mountains have left such issues largely to local control, though Stout said the KVAC has enacted a fee structure for videostreaming rights to its conference championship events.

“Some schools are doing it and promoting it and some schools during the regular season have no interest in doing it because they’re afraid it will hurt their crowd,” he said.

Currently Presque Isle is the lone Aroostook County school to charge video streamers a rights fee, in its case $100 per game.

“One reason for it is to protect the gate,” said Presque Isle athletic administrator Mark White, “because that’s money I need to run our athletic program. Another is to protect the boosters’ club (a bigger crowd means more concessions sold).

“We also want to protect the brand. I think the Presque Isle Wildcats brand is pretty solid in the County and we want to keep it that way. We want to be sure that over the air the focus is on the game and the kids because this is not NCAA basketball. It’s a high school game.”

Signs of support

Jason Fuller has become a strong proponent of the live video streaming of high school sports through his dual capacities as athletic administrator at Lewiston High School and athletic director of the annual Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic football game.

One requirement Fuller makes when negotiating video streaming rights for the school is that the company advertises the event to be shown in advance — something he said has helped increase attendance.

“What ends up happening is that they start advertising the event, more and more people see that it’s going on and being streamed live, and it seems to draw more people there,” he said.

“I’m not saying that’s the case for other schools, but for us at Lewiston the times we’ve had games online with streaming it’s helped our gate. Our revenues have gone up for every game we’ve done it with.”

Fuller took a similar approach when he negotiated with WCSH-TV of Portland for the live video streaming rights to the 25th annual Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic in July.

“I told them the same thing, that we were willing to do it as long as you’re willing to advertise our game and do a series of ads about the game and about the Shrine itself,” said Fuller. “And I can’t say enough about what they gave us in return. They were phenomenal in terms of their advertising statewide.”

Not only did the video stream of the all-star football game attract viewers from around the globe — including unique visitors from Europe, Australia and the Philippines — but 6,500 fans still turned out to watch the game, whose proceeds benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

“To me, you don’t get that exposure unless you do it online,” said Fuller, “and we’re really excited about continuing that in the future.”

A growing industry

While pre-existing media outlets have expanded in some cases to add live video streaming to their offerings, a few smaller companies also have gotten into the mix to provide local sports coverage.

The Gardiner-based Munzing Media has streamed more than 200 college and high school games since 2011, according to Rob Munzing, a former teacher and varsity football coach at Gardiner Area High School.

“We know we’re connecting with folks,” said Munzing, whose broadcasts originate primarily from Central Maine, “and I think this new technology is kind of replacing radio because there are fewer radio stations covering games now. I think we’re filling a pretty good niche for folks and we’re getting kids out there to be seen.”

The Bangor-based SportsNet Maine, owned by Jim Churchill, has provided similar live video streaming of sporting events in Eastern Maine, and has entered into an agreement with the Bangor Daily News to stream several live football games this fall through the www.bangordailynews.com website.

“Most of our experience has been with basketball along with some football, baseball and soccer, and we look forward to adding hockey and softball in the near future,” said Churchill. “It has been a learning experience to say the least.

“Our number one focus has been on improving the product. Last year we added cameras, more graphics and replays among other things. We are happy with the improvements we have made, but there is still plenty of room for additional upgrades.”

Such technological upgrades come at a cost that outlets like Munzing Media and SportsNet Maine are working to offset through advertising sales.

Both Munzing Media and SportsNet Maine have additional agreements for live-streamed events to be televised on a delayed basis by Time Warner Cable, with the SportsNet Maine offerings also available On Demand after the TV broadcast at SportsNetMaine.com.

Expanded playoff coverage

Another organization that has turned to video streaming to provide additional access to high school events is the Maine Principals’ Association.

The MPA in 2013 entered into a five-year deal to provide a subscription-based, all-digital service for many of its postseason contests as one of approximately 35 state members of the NFHS Network, a collaboration between the National Federation of State High School Associations and the PlayOn! Sports production company.

The MPA receives an annual lump-sum payment of $35,000 in exchange for the NFHS Network-PlayOn! Sports having exclusive streaming rights to all postseason contests at which the MPA has site control, save for championship events for which it had an existing media contract — such as with MPBN for the later stages of the high school basketball tournament and WABI-TV of Bangor for the high school football state finals.

“One of the things that really made this attractive to us was that this is a national group operating now in 35 states, so they have their routine down. They know what they’re doing,” said MPA executive director Dick Durost. “It also meant that we didn’t have to go out and negotiate with an entity to do soccer, a different one to do this and a different one to do that. They’re covering everything in terms of our championships except for the football and basketball relationships we already had.”

Games streamed by PlayOn! Sports may be purchased on a single-game, pay-per-view basis, or fans can buy a monthlong subscription that provides them access to any events being streamed from any state in the NFHS Network.

So far, so good, said Durost.

“To me, that is one of the biggest reasons for us to be able to do this, to provide the rest of the world the opportunity to see somebody that they have a Maine connection with participate in a championship event.”

Another reason the MPA opted to provide live streaming of postseason events through the NFHS Network and PlayOn! Sports was to increase coverage of activities that traditionally have not been accessible over the Internet or on television.

Before this agreement, the MPA negotiated live streaming rights on a sport-by-sport basis, with high-profile sports like basketball, football and hockey attracting the vast majority of interest.

“There are other sports beyond the high-profile sports like the basketball and football and ice hockey championships that never got any kind of coverage similar to this before,” Durost said. “Now there’s that opportunity for those student-athletes to be seen.”

The switch to a single live-streaming provider did impact local outlets like Munzing Media and WHOU that provided live streaming of some postseason events such as early round basketball tournament games over the previous two years, but some have since been hired as subcontractors by PlayOn! Sports for various events.

And for the MPA, the deal with the NFHS Network and PlayOn! Sports provided a single outlet to manage the production of its postseason events in an increased number of activities.

While Durost said the MPA has not been presented with specific data related to the number of Mainers who purchased live postseason streams during the 2013-14 school year, he did say usage was high compared to other states for the opening round of the 2014 high school basketball tournament.

Durost said there was no indication that the availability of games via live streaming had an effect on the number of fans who attended the events, particularly the basketball tournament.

“My take over the 14 years I’ve been doing this is that, for most people, if they have a relative or good friend playing or they simply follow their team, they’re going to go to the games regardless of whether it’s been on MPBN over the years or now with the video streaming,” said Durost, who added that the most important factors affecting attendance are weather, community support and the game’s importance.

One reality that has set in among virtually all involved or affected by the advent of live video streaming of high school sports in Maine is that it’s not going away, so considerable thought is being given to how to maximize the benefits of the technology.

One long-term possibility being mulled informally by some schools is to have games and other activities streamed through their own websites with the goal of getting alumni and other visitors back to the site to learn more about all aspects of the school.

Current video streaming operators say their professionally produced services already provide considerable additional exposure at little cost to the schools.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...