TV, web streaming mix are the future of the state’s tourney broadcasts

MPBN broadcaster Joe Gould helps a Gorham player  climb back up over the media table after the player chased a loose basketball in a March 2002 tournament game at the Bangor Auditorium. (Michael York/BDN)

MPBN broadcaster Joe Gould helps a Gorham player climb back up over the media table after the player chased a loose basketball in a March 2002 tournament game at the Bangor Auditorium. (Michael York/BDN)

The opportunity to participate in Maine Public Broadcasting Network Network’s televising of the state high school basketball tournaments during the late 1900’s and early 2000’s was indeed a personal pleasure.

Whether serving as the roving reporter — or “Floor Boy’ as one pundit labeled the position, no doubt out of considerable jealousy — or a color commentator for Eastern Maine boys basketball  and state games, there was no question those annual productions resonated in a major way based on the feedback I received in grocery stores and restaurants around the state.

And with each year I returned to the team, I continually was amazed at how all the pieces came together from among equipment owned and rented and part-time personnel from within MPBN and beyond.

Since my tenure ended with a return to print (and now Web) media, the production requirements have only become more demanding, a reality that left me totally unsurprised when the Maine Principals’ Association announced Tuesday that it was soliciting bids for telecasts or live streaming of the 2016 tournament.

The writing was on the wall when the tournament was expanded to three sites, Bangor, Augusta and Portland, in an effort to respond to statewide demographic changes. That stretched available resources beyond a workable point and left MPBN with $20,000 to $30,000 of red ink on the broadcasts per year, according to its own admission.

Such a bottom line is going to be allowed to exist for only so long in any business before changes are made.

Critics of the current state of affairs are quick to play the blame game — somehow it’s MPBN’s fault for not being to raise sufficient funds for the event or it’s the MPA making some sort of money grab.

As to the latter, if it was all about the money for the MPA, why would it ever have moved the Class A regional tournament from its separate time period after February vacation week to the same week as the B, C and D regional events, as it did after the 2005 season? That clearly was a money-losing proposition for the organization, since instead of fans being able to buy tickets to attend both events they now had to make a choice since the event now are held at the same time.

As to the former, MPBN’s decision is more a reflection of the Maine economy and strains on the media in general than what any specific party did or did not do.

After all, this is just the latest step in the steady decline of traditional live televised coverage of the state high school basketball tournament.

Back when the Class A tournament was a separate entity played after February vacation week, the Eastern B, C and D tournament was broadcast by MPBN while the Eastern A tournament and Class A state finals were broadcast by WABI-TV in Bangor.

WABI got out of televising tournament games in 2003 after 50 years, leaving MPBN as the lone television source save for some assistance it has received in Portland broadcasts in recent years from Time Warner Cable.

Live coverage of regional quarterfinals, once part of the television productions have returned in recent years with such video streaming entities as WHOU in Houlton and Munzing Media in central Maine stepping in to make games available via computer.

That is likely the direction more rounds of future tournament broadcasts may go, with local video streamers providing computer access to tournament games perhaps through the regional finals. Less staff and equipment is required, meaning less overhead.

MPBN has indicated an interest in televising the 10 state championship games under the new five-class format for high school basketball in the state, though its original proposal in October to provide such coverage was turned down by the MPA, likely in an effort to make those more popular games available to other entities that may choose to bid on tournament coverage.

The MPA is accepting requests for proposals for television and web streaming rights for the 2016 basketball tournaments through 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13.

I’m of the belief that MPBN’s offer to air all 10 state finals may be the best TV deal available to the MPA, in great part because NBC, ABC or CBS affiliates around the state are unlikely to be able to clear enough time through the respective networks to air such a volume of games, particularly those below the state final level.

Mike Young, vice president and general manager of Community Broadcast Service, which owns WABI-TV and The CW in Bangor, is heavily involved in broadcasting live local sports on those outlets but acknowledged the logistical challenges of high school basketball tournament coverage in a story published Tuesday on the Bangor Daily News’ website and in its print editions.

“That’s a pretty darned good offer,” said Young of MPBN’s wish to retain coverage of basketball state championship games. “I don’t know of any broadcasters who can pull off televising five classes of games at three different sites (for the regional semifinals, finals and state games) logistically and practically. There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle that have to be assembled.”

If other games are left to be video streamed, that may become a satisfactory solution sooner than we think. While my own computer skills leave me a member of what I describe as “Ye Olde Lead Pencil Society,” using a television screen to watch such computer-generated programming is becoming much more commonplace so it may not be long before the entire tournament  becomes available again to those with such technological capability.

In the interim there also may be a renewed opening for radio tournament coverage, which also has dwindled over the years in the face of increased costs and decreased advertising.

It’s clear to me there is a market for high school basketball tournament telecasts, and that dividing those responsibilities and costs among various video-streaming companies as well as MPBN can continue to make this rite of Maine winter available in homes around the state.



Ernie Clark

About Ernie Clark

I'm 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 Association, my coverage areas range from high school sports to mixed martial arts.