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A Year With COVID: How livestreaming is advancing high school sports

While the pandemic has separated many families, the increase in high school sports livestreams has allowed them to stay more connected. Now the streams may become a new staple of high school sporting events.

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Volunteer Shelly Gerard, of Canton, livestreams a boys basketball game between Mabel-Canton and LeRoy-Ostrander Friday, March 5, 2021, in Mabel. Gerard's son, Randy Gerard, plays on the team. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
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It’s game day for the Halverson family as they gather to watch the oldest child, 11-year-old Ella, play in her sixth-grade basketball game.

The family isn’t walking into a Mabel-Canton gymnasium and finding seats on the bleachers, however. They’re not being peer pressured by the two youngest children, 9-year-old Nolan and 4-year-old Gavin, to probably spend more at the concessions stand than they should.

Instead, they gather in the living room, grabbing snacks from the kitchen if they’re hungry. Ella's parents, Lisa and Nate, sit on the couch as Nolan and Gavin are on the floor glued to the TV, ready to watch Ella’s game through a livestream.

READ MORE FROM THE SERIES: A Year With COVID

“It’s kinda fun for them to see their big sister on TV,” Lisa said.

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This is the new reality for many watching prep sports during a pandemic. No more than two family members per player are allowed to attend most high school sports events in southeastern Minnesota, leaving families like the Halversons sometimes at home instead of being at the game.

To give people some way to watch high school sports, high schools in southeastern Minnesota and around the country have been livestreaming the events on various platforms to give an alternative option for families and fans to watch. After several months, this option is now looking like it may be a new staple of high school sports going forward after the pandemic.

“It’s hard not being able to be there in person to support her, but she knows we’re watching from home and that definitely helps,” Lisa said. “It’s definitely nice, too, as parents to see her play in action. It’s just all so strange. It’s been a different year.”

‘It’s pretty insane’

Mabel-Canton Activities Director and volleyball coach Lonnie Morken knew this past fall he had to do something.

His historically successful volleyball team was soon to take the court, and it’s enthusiastic fan base had no options at the time to witness it.

Through using the streaming system Meridix, Morken was able to get all the equipment he needed to give the community a way to get its Mabel-Canton volleyball fix.

For the school district that has a population of barely more than 1,000, Morken said the first volleyball stream had nearly 200 people viewing, and the community response after was largely positive.

“It was awesome,” Morken said. "I got emails, texts from people who were watching the game and they showed their two little kids standing in front of the TV watching the game, doing the national anthem. It was just really cool to see people connecting with the livestream... It was very well received around Mabel, anyway.”

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By football season, many area schools jumped to make sure they had a livestream of some sort available for fans, and the results showed why.

Rochester Mayo Activities Director Jeff Whitney said its first livestream of the football season brought in roughly 3,000-4,000 people, while Kasson-Mantorville play-by-play broadcaster Joel McCall also saw a spike in its livestream viewership once the season began.

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Todd Halverson, left, a volunteer, and Joel McCall, the operations manager for Kasson-Mantorville High School's YouTube Channel, broadcast a boys basketball game between K-M and Chisago Lakes live on YouTube Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Kasson. K-M beat Chisago Lakes 62-59. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“It’s pretty insane,” McCall said of the growing livestream popularity. "Our viewership and our subscribers shot up immediately and was going up like crazy… People were relying on us so much more, and more subscribers were coming on.”

Both schools primarily use YouTube as their streaming platform, allowing for a free option for people to view the games. The setups normally only require a laptop and a camera at the very least to stream the game.

The streams gave fans that would normally attend the games an avenue to still see the events, but an unintended result also came from them as well, Whitney said.

“You had family members that couldn't come watch the games, but yet now you have family members that would never be able to watch the games if they’re in Arizona for the winter, so now grandma and grandpa can watch,” Whitney said. “An unintended use of livestreaming became a benefit for a group of people that we’ve never reached before.”

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One of those grandparents is Heather Kleiboer's mother, Louise, who's now able to watch her grandchildren at Mabel-Canton compete. She and her husband normally go to Texas for the winters, and miss out on seeing their oldest grandchild, Dawson, play basketball, and their granddaughter, Kaitlin, cheer.

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Heather Kleiboer, who has a son that plays on the Mabel-Canton junior varsity basketball team and a daughter who is a varsity cheerleader, livestreams all the home JV games to the school's website and some of the away games. When there isn't another parent volunteer, Kleiboer, who is also the cheerleading coach and works as a secretary for the school district, helps out with the varsity games. Kleiboer is photographed Friday, March 5, 2021, at the school in Mabel. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“I think it’s great. With those long-distance relatives, it’s just one more way we can keep in touch," Heather said. "I think it’s really important for the kids to know they have that support and that whether we’re in the stands or from their couch from home that somebody is there watching.”

While Louise said she's had a little bit of Wifi trouble here and there, she’s largely been able to view the streams.

“It allows us to be a part of their lives from a distance," Louise said. "It's not the same as being there but is a welcome option.”

‘Reservations going forward’

With livestreaming becoming a viable option to view high school sports, there is an unknown factor that activities directors are going to be monitoring going forward.

If fans are comfortable watching the game from home, will they still want to attend the live events?

“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Morken said. “That would mean less ticket revenue for schools, less concessions for schools and in the end smaller crowds, and there’s something to be said about playing in front of a packed gymnasium. The games we’ve had for volleyball and basketball this season, it’s like you’re in a library.”

Subscription-based streaming services such as from National Federation of State High School Associations make Morken worried it may be more cost-effective for families to stay home instead.

“I do have reservations going forward because I’m afraid some of our lukewarm fans are going to say ‘if I go to the gym, it’s going to cost me and my family 20 dollars, plus concessions,’” Morken said. “They could pay 10 dollars a month and see as many games, and the schools may lose some revenue.”

For McCall, it’s more black and white. The fans that want to be there are going to be, and those who can’t make the game will have the streams available to access.

“I don’t see it being an issue with revenue, because the supporters and those that want to be at games are going to be there,” McCall said. “It’s the grandparents and others that can’t simply make the game that are going to want that streaming service.”

Whitney said these concerns have been present for the last several years prior to COVID-19, but like Morken, he's currently focused on giving people a way to view the games. Whitney said they’ll make a decision on the stream’s continuation if it is affecting revenue.

His reservation comes from the amount of effort that has gone into livestreaming Mayo high school sports. Between livestreaming numerous different sports at different levels, and having the equipment and manpower to do so, there’s a “big discussion” to be had going forward.

“You know, in the future, maybe we only do varsity levels, I don't know,” he said. “So, yeah, it's a whole other level of putting on an athletic event. And at athletic events at our level, you know, there's only a certain number of people that are producing those events just in a normal setting, and then you add live streaming, and all the things that go with that, and to be equitable across all programs, that it is another challenge, that's for sure.”

‘I don’t think you can step back’

Even with revenue being a potential concern down the road, livestreaming doesn’t appear to be going away.

The supply and demand have been established, and people post-pandemic will still be looking for streams to log into for games.

“I think livestreaming is going to be a requirement at these games now. I really do,” McCall said. “I don’t think you can step back because of the reliability that people want it. People are going to ask for it and people will be like ‘well, why aren’t you there and why don’t you do it now that the pandemic ends?’ I think you’ll still have people that don't want to come out to the games… I think it’s a need that people will want for a very long time.”

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Joel McCall, the operations manager for Kasson-Mantorville High School's YouTube Channel, does the play-by-play for a boys basketball game between K-M and Chisago Lakes broadcast live on YouTube Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Kasson. K-M beat Chisago Lakes 62-59. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

The Minnesota State High School League has been rather hands-off in terms of regulating the school’s livestreams as well. The only restriction Whitney said that’s been in place is the requirement for the livestreams to not be for profit.

If there is a school livestream present at sporting events, then no other streams of the game are permitted. For example, parents cannot do a Facebook livestream of a game if there is a school-affiliated broadcast already taking place.

“There's not a lot of hurdles right now. And I think the (MSHSL) has opened it up as much as they can because of the scenario, so it’s pretty wide open right now,” Whitney said. “There's limited restrictions. If you want to livestream a region event, you pretty much can do it if you follow, you know, certain protocols and guidelines.”

Whitney added that he does believe there will be future restrictions placed on livestreaming because of the schools having to pay to stream playoff games and pay to rent neutral-site venues.

The advancements of livestreaming equipment have also made producing a broadcast much smoother. Whitney said.

Compared to more than three decades ago when they were shooting games on 8-millimeter cameras, the broadcast can now be put up on big-screen TVs at home and easily watched.

“It looks like you're watching ESPN,” Whitney said.

And it’s made families such as the Kleibors stay connected during a time that’s separated many.

“Of all the things that have happened from COVID, I would say the livestreaming has at least been a benefit from it,” she said.

Erich is a digital content producer at the Post Bulletin where he creates content for the Post Bulletin's digital platforms. Before he moved to Rochester, Erich worked as a sports reporter for Rivals.com covering the University of Illinois' athletic programs in Champaign, Illinois. Readers can reach Erich at 507-285-7681 or efisher@postbulletin.com.
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