What’s wrong with local radio airing Pa. high school hoops? | Mark O’Keefe

We want athletes to compete on a level playing field. Right now, the PIAA has cornered the airwaves

April 13, 2023 6:30 am
Basketball Training Game Background. Basketball on Wooden Court Floor Close Up with Blurred Players Playing Basketball Game in the Background

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High school basketball might not as big in Pennsylvania as it is in other states such as Indiana.

But round ball fever remains as hot as ever in a number of places across the state, including Reading, Uniontown, New Castle, Coatesville, Chester, Farrell, Steelton, Allentown, Altoona and Williamsport, among many others.

In fact, the fever is burning brighter than ever in many areas, with numerous radio stations broadcasting games live on their Facebook pages.

The broadcasts have been great for older people who might not be able to get to the games or for people who have moved away, allowing them to keep in contact with their former high school.  

Brian Mroziak, general manager for the WMBS-AM in Uniontown, said 28,000 viewers tuned into a game last year between two undefeated teams, Laurel Highlands and Belle Vernon, the highest ever in the station’s history.

He said the Uniontown-Laurel Highlands game attracted 17,000 viewers, the most for this year. He added that most games, in the regular season, drew between 5,000 to 10,000 viewers, with those numbers jumping to 10,000 to 15,000 for the playoffs.

However, there is one problem with the broadcasts. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has contracted with the National Federation High School (NFHS) Network to air games exclusively. That means local radio stations such as WMBS-AM and local school districts such as Uniontown can’t air some playoff games even after broadcasting games all season.

The only way fans can watch these games is to pay for them. The cost is $11.99 for a monthly pass and $79.99 for a yearly pass.

Uniontown fans found that out the had way this past season when their game against Lincoln Park in the PIAA 4A semifinals was broadcast exclusively on NFHS.

Uniontown has a very loyal following since the Red Raiders have won more section titles than any team in the history of the WPIAL, which covers most of Western Pennsylvania. This year’s team was one of the best in the school’s history, winning another section title and becoming the last public high school in the PIAA playoffs.

For the PIAA playoff games, the radio station provided production assistance to the Uniontown School District to broadcast the games,

Many people turned on the  Uniontown School District’s Facebook page expecting to see the highly anticipated much up, and were upset when it wasn’t broadcast.

Mroziak said both the station and school district heard numerous complaints about the game, with many people blaming them for the fiasco.

Part of the problem, Mroziak noted, is NFHS isn’t widely known and many people weren’t even aware that they could pay to watch the game.

In addition, the NFHS subcontracted out the Greene County Sports Network to produce their broadcast of the game. Neighboring Greene County is not in Fayette County, where Uniontown is located.

WMBS-AM did air a live radio only broadcast of the game and the Uniontown School District was able to tape the game and air it the next day, but most local fans wanting to watch a live video broadcast of the game were shut out.

Mroziak said his problem isn’t with the NFHS. He said his problem is with the PIAA contracting exclusive rights for the games to the NFHS.

“We don’t want to put anyone out of business. We just want a fair playing field,” said Mroziak.

“We knew this problem was coming,” added Mroziak. “We saw this happen in other parts of the state, and we knew it was just a matter of time before it would happen here.”

But Mroziak feels this could only be the tip of the iceberg. He said the NFHS picks and chooses what games it airs, and next season it could televise all of Uniontown’s PIAA playoff games. Regular season games could also be in jeopardy as the NFHS has already begun airing such games in other parts of the state.

PIAA officials, of course, have a different view of the situation.

“These radio stations wanting to televise games are a little late to the party,” said Robert A. Lombardi, executive director of the PIAA. “We’ve had a contract with the NFHS for a number of years now and everyone’s happy about it except the radio stations.

“We have a lot of expenses in putting these games on and the money from the NFHS contract helps pay for them,” he added. “We’re happy with the the contract, and we don’t see any reason to make changes.”

However, there is movement in the Pennsylvania Legislature that could change that arrangement.

State Rep. Jim Struzzi, a Republican who represents much of Indiana County, has introduced legislation that would revoke the exclusivity in the NFHS contract and allow local radio stations to broadcast the games.

Struzzi said he thinks once lawmakers become aware of the bill, which is now before the House Education Committee,  they will overwhelmingly support it.

“Who doesn’t want to watch local high school basketball? ” Struzzi asked. ”I really can’t see why anyone would be against this bill.”

He added the bill should have bipartisan support, noting there’s nothing remotely political about the bill.

“It’s just a common sense bill that should pass without any trouble,” he added.

Of course, as anyone familiar with the pitfalls of passing legislation in Harrisburg no bill is ever approved “without any trouble,” and the status quo has a formidable record against any and all proposed changes.

One thing is certain. The PIAA has grown used to the revenue from the NFHS contract and won’t give up those revenues without a fight.

“We’ll deal with the bill if it comes up,” said Lombardi.

Mroziak said residents across the state need to get behind the bill.

“We urge everyone to contact their legislators and get them to support this bill,” said Mroziak. “That’s the only way we’re going to get this to change.

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Mark OKeefe
Mark OKeefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.