Local sports coverage has always been a key weapon in the competitive arsenal of TV stations. But in today's multimedia world, local sports--especially at the high school level--is more important than ever for TV stations fighting the ratings war.
KDVR Fox 31 High School Sports reporter, Marcia Neville, covering prep sports.
"As regional sports networks move into local sports, the key for local broadcasters is to go more local than ever before," said John Mansell, media analyst and CEO of John Mansell Associates in Great Falls, Va. "To do this, they're increasing their coverage of high school sports, and using the Web to do it affordably. One broadcaster who is doing this extensively is Fox Television Stations."
Fox is not the only station group to leverage the Web to boost its on-air sports viewership. Local sports remain a staple for most TV Web sites.
WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., for example, brought in Dane Huffman to be sports managing editor for its Web site.
"I came from newspaper industry," he said. "What they wanted to do was tie Web site and the television product together. We have great television, but didn't have a Web site that was strong."
WRAL built up the site, and rather than having the broadcast product feed the Web, they designed a converse model.
"The idea is that the Web is actually contributing to TV," Huffman said.
Coverage of the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State are paramount in WRAL's market, he said.
"This first year, anything we can do to go after those games, we're going to do. We now have correspondents filing stories and helping us keep on top of things."
Huffman said that WRAL is making the investment in hyperlocal Web content, "knowing that over the long haul this is going to make sense. What we're doing is investing in Web product so it grows... More people are looking at it, and more advertisers will want to be there."
Another local initiative is evolving at the station group level builds on the social networking model used by Facebook and YouTube.
Fox Television Stations has created FoxHiLites, a gateway to 23 local FoxHiLites sites. Each one is focused on the market or region it represents--Atlanta, Chicago, Colorado, etc. Fox has also launched a New York City high school sports site under the brand "MyFoxLocker."
The fundamental concept behind social networking sites is not that people simply visit; they are encouraged to become active members who post their own videos, comments and other content. Active members can be counted on to return regularly, providing a loyal audience that can be sold to advertisers and generating a never-ending source of content.
FoxHiLites applies this same model to high school sports--not just the games, but all the social activities associated with them.
FoxHiLites invites site members to video local sporting events, then to upload edited highlights to the local Web site. The site even provides simplified online editing tools to help posters polish content. Content can be shot on camcorders or cellphones, whatever the site member has at hand.
"Our focus is on giving exposure to high school sports in a way that just wasn't possible before," said Ron Stitt, vice president of digital media for Fox Television Stations. "This is a niche that has traditionally been underserved before the advent of the Web."
The result: Fox gets free access to an unparalleled amount of high school sports footage--far more than it could afford to record--in addition to each station's regular sports coverage.
"This is the kind of content that our viewers want," said Bill Schneider, general manager of KDVR/Fox 31 in Denver. "People in Colorado have a certain appreciation for a local TV station that truly serves the community."
The students get exposure for themselves and their school, and because Fox-owned stations regularly air footage filed one the sites, they get broadcast TV exposure too.
For instance, "every week, we take footage from a report uploaded to FoxHiLitesChicago and use it on our newscast," said Pat Mullen, general manager and vice president of WFLD/Fox Chicago and WPWR/My 50 Chicago, which pioneered the FoxHiLites concept in league with Fox Television Stations headquarters.
"Does this give them a reason to tune into their local Fox newscast? Definitely," he said.
Unlike most Web sites, many social networking sites require users to become registered members to take full advantage of all the site has to offer. Usually membership is free; the point of registration is to create a sense of loyalty as well as an assurance of authenticity and security.
FoxHiLites is no different: To upload or download videos or post comments, users have to register. Users become part of an online world that quickly becomes a gathering of their peers.
"This is a community where you're going to see what your friends and other schools are doing," said KDVR/Fox 31's Marcia Neville. Neville produces Prep Zone reports for FoxHiLitesColorado and hosts KDVR's weekly high school sports program, Double Coverage Sports, on Saturday evenings.
The sites are also a place that family and friends can log onto, no matter where they are in the world.
"Grandparents can sign into FoxHiLites to see highlights of their grandchildren's games," Stitt said. "It doesn't matter where they are: They can still take part in their family's lives."
Although the sites are very much aimed at high school students, Fox takes care to consult with coaches, educators, parents and high school sports associations to guide what gets posted online. As well, "we view all video ourselves before it gets posted," Neville said.
By working closely with such groups, FoxHiLites enhances the network's community-service record.
MOBILIZING LOCAL CONTENT
Once that member loyalty is locked in, FoxHiLites is aiming to get its content anywhere and everywhere the site users are. Theoretically, all FoxHiLites content can already be viewed via wireless broadband, so long as the user has a 3G-enabled cellphone. However, where this content could start to make a real difference to Fox affiliates is in the generation of revenue through local wireless carriers.
"The Holy Grail of wireless has been to convince people to buy data on their handsets," Mansell said. "Well, following right behind data is mobile video. Now I don't think people will pay to watch entire football games on their phones, but I think they will be willing to pay for local sports highlights. After all, short content is what people pay to watch on wireless, and sports highlights fits the bill."
Combining social networking with local sports creates hyperlocal sports coverage that no station could afford to produce alone using its own resources. FoxHiLites also proves that, far from being obsolete, local TV broadcasters are well positioned to profit in the emerging multimedia universe.