Society has made many adjustments while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
One noteworthy change has been the evolution of livestreaming for high school sports events. Livestreaming, broadcasting a video feed on the internet, has been around for several years but had only been used for select games or competitions.
With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting or eliminating game attendance during the fall and winter seasons because of indoor gathering limits, livestreaming has enabled fans, family and friends to watch the action — all while reducing potential exposure to the coronavirus.
What started as a novelty, when a few games were broadcast over the internet by commercial media entities, has grown into a widespread practice. Streams are now provided by schools, using students to produce them, or even by automated cameras with no announcers.
Most high school basketball games in central and northern Maine were livestreamed last winter.
Frank and Barbara Hirsch, who live in Scarborough, are the grandparents of Bangor High School hockey goalie Jake Hirsch. They were able to see all of his games via livestream.
“It has been wonderful to watch the Bangor games and I’m a hockey fanatic so I’ve watched just about all of the games, even some that didn’t include Bangor,” Frank Hirsch said. “I’ve never really followed the basketball tournaments up there, but I have watched some high school basketball this winter and have had a great time.”
Fans and coaches can expect to continue having plenty of livestreaming offerings to watch their favorite teams and athletes.
“Livestreaming is here to stay,” Brewer High School athletic administrator Dave Utterback said. “We have our own inhouse network that would feed into YouTube. We needed at least 1,000 subscribers to enable the viewers to watch it live for free and we got 1,900.”
Other schools also broadcast their games on YouTube, meaning those games also were available free.
Some fans accessed games via the National Federation of State High School Associations Network, which has a monthly subscription fee of $10.99 to access livestreams in Maine and across the country.
One Maine organization that has been at the forefront of livestreaming is Houlton-based Northern Maine Media Inc./WHOU. Owner Fred Grant said it has broadcast more than 400 games this school year via a subscription that costs $10 per month or $85 per year.
Utterback noted that fans usually have to pay at least $5 per game to watch in person, so the monthly fee for livestreaming may even save them money in the long run.
Schools collaborated among themselves to provide livestreaming in some form to help give fans the best possible product at little or no cost.
“Everyone was sharing ideas about what was the best platform to use,” Utterback said. “Some schools got really creative.”
Utterback has robotic HUDL cameras attached to the ceiling of the high school gym, so Brewer didn’t need camera operators at their games. Announcers weren’t used at first, but parents asked if that would be possible.
Veteran broadcaster and Brewer High graduate Jim Churchill of WEZQ, 92.9 FM The Ticket and his colleagues stepped in to call the games.
“It made it so much better,” said Tracy Goodrich, mother of Brewer High senior basketball player Kyle Goodrich. “The game [without announcers] didn’t have any energy.”
Ellsworth High athletic administrator Josh Frost used a portable unit that included a camera on a tripod with a streaming box. They had been livestreaming a handful of games in recent years, but expanded it to show almost all of the games this year.
The Ellsworth administration spent $4,000 from COVID-19 relief money to buy two more units and hired an ed tech and a worker from the multimedia design program at the Hancock County Technical Center to run the cameras.
Frost found a willing veteran play-by-play man in veteran Chris Popper of WDEA-AM 1370, who called a lot of their games.
Mike Bisson, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said that an MPA partnership with the NFHS enables any school to receive two free cameras to to livestream games. In return, the games are shown as part of the NFHS Network’s subscription system.
“[Livestreaming] has taken off,” Bisson said. “A lot of schools had dabbled in it, doing basketball games and some other sports. But without fans being allowed into the games, the schools had to figure out how to do it for all activities.”
He also noted that it could eventually prove to be a profitable venture for the MPA, which shares revenue from the NFHS Network.
Grant said the need for livestreaming has evolved from a luxury into a necessity and business has been booming. Northern Maine Media has an affiliation with 16-20 schools.
“We’ve had to hire more [than] 25 people to run cameras and we bought at least 25 more sets of broadcast equipment,” Grant said.
They have trained the camera people, many of whom are high school students. Less than half of the broadcasts do not have announcers.
“We love working with the high school kids because they understand the technology,” Grant said.
One challenge for Grant’s operation is broadcasting from remote areas with a weak or no wifi signal. They remedied that situation in a variety of ways, including using a portable wifi card.
Similarly, Brewer has upgraded its wifi signal for its outdoor venues.
It has been business as usual at Nokomis High School in Newport, albeit with a much higher volume of games. Athletic administrator Mark Babin said the school features the Nokomis Warrior Broadcasting network, under the direction of Matt Brown, for several years.
“It has worked out well for us,” Babin said. “Our students do just about everything, including the announcing.”
Livestreaming has been a godsend for family members who either live far away or aren’t able to attend games. Frost said among the emails of gratitude he has received include some from grandparents in South Africa and Massachusetts.
“WHOU and [play-by-play man] Dale Duff have been the MVPs this winter,” said Greg Hirsch, Jake’s father, who subscribed to WHOU to watch his son.
Hirsch normally attends all of his son’s games, but said sitting in a comfortable recliner in his living room while watching his son play on the big screen TV isn’t a bad alternative.
“It has been a blessing,” Tracy Goodrich concurred.