Big bucks forcing big changes to coverage of state wrestling tourney

From the Press Box: Opinion and Insight

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Unless you live in an area covered by the dark dots, you will not be able to see any of the upcoming state wrestling or boys state basketball on television, unless you have a satellite provider. Live streaming on your computer? You can forget that, too.

Changes are coming to the media’s coverage of the State Wrestling Tournament, and it remains to be seen if the concerns circulating in non-broadcast media circles statewide swell into an uproar once the general public learns what is afoot.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association long ago sold broadcast and webcast rights to the boys state football, basketball and wrestling tournaments to the privately owned Iowa High School Sports Network. The IHSSN reportedly paid the IHSAA $60,000 for the 2015-16 tournaments.

Last year the IHSSN sold those exclusive rights — for the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 state tournaments — to Comcast SportsNet Chicago. The media has been told this arrangement has not changed the financial situation between the IHSAA and IHSSN.

The IHSSN in now the entity issuing media credentials to these tourneys. In other words, a profit-minded media company has been given control over distributing what amounts to access to state tourneys. No problem wanting to make a profit. It’s the American way.

But think about this for a minute. A media company now has control over media access. It is not too far removed from McDonald’s owning the concessions at an event and then being given control over who, what and how many other food vendors will also be allowed.

Kade VanKirk looks toward the Perry faithful in a moment of genuine emotion after achieving his personal goal of earning a spot on the podium at the 2016 state tournament.

I get that the IHSSN is out to make a buck. Again, no problem. But the IHSSN is now acting in a heavy-handed style never before experienced by myself or my sports colleagues, many of whom I have known for more than 25 years. Limiting some of the larger papers in Iowa to only two credentials is just one example.

In all the years I have covered state wrestling, access to the mats was never an issue. Even at the old Veterans Auditorium, the packed conditions were tolerable, if you were willing to run over moms, grandmas, kids and the like in trying to hustle to get to your mat in time to shoot photos of your kid.

The switch to Wells Fargo alleviated some of the congestion, but it can still be harrowing trying to move from one end of the arena to the other. Anyone who has been there and seen the photographers fighting for position will be familiar with the kabuki dance.

In early January, the IHSAA — despite no longer being the ones to issue credentials, though they will still staff and operate the tournament — sent out a media-wide email detailing all the new changes.

One of the most drastic — and obvious to those who have attended a session — will be the removal of some 40 seats for daily newspapers along the east side of the mats. All of my friends in the daily markets will now find themselves in a newly-created “media center” off the floor. The old media room barely sufficed to house the huge number of media present, and now, with the dailies off the floor and a new room hardly larger, well . . .

There will also be, the media has been told, new “barriers” around the mats, behind which all photographers must remain. How much are you willing to bet IHSSN cameras are allowed inside these new barriers?

Perry’s Kaleb Olejniczak battles Central Decatur’s Wyatt Dale in the 2nd-round consolations at 106 pounds in the 2016 Class 2A state tourney.

The likely outcome is that the quality of photographs you are used to seeing at the state tourney (examples of which are shown here) is almost guaranteed to suffer.

Those who have enjoyed the photos I have taken at the state mat tournament since my move to Perry in 2005 may be in for a bitter shock, as I — and all other photographers statewide — have no idea how this new arrangement will work.

Emails, phone calls and texts have flown back and forth all across Iowa among my friends in the industry. I have myself spent several hours in the past weeks discussing the matter with colleagues at nearly a dozen daily and weekly papers throughout Iowa. All are concerned with access. I am, too.

Who suffers? The wrestlers, of course. Not only will photography access be — at the very best — worse than ever before, but the ability to interview wrestlers has also been made more difficult by additional restraints in that area.

Goodbye, Statewide TV coverage

The screaming is really going to start when the public realizes that huge swaths of the state, including all of Dallas, Boone, Polk and Guthrie, along with most of Greene County, will not be able to watch the state championships on TV Saturday, Feb. 18.

Two points were on their way to Zachary Thompson after this move against Jon Hellman in their 120-pound quarterfinal at the 2016 Class 2A state tourney.

With the three-year deal to Comcast SportsNet Chicago, the only way a viewer will see championship Saturday is if he has DirecTV or Dish Network or else has a cable provider who carries CSN Chicago. Mediacom, almost exclusively, does not.

So, for example, if you live in Perry and have Mediacom as a cable provider, you are out of luck. You will not be alone, as more than half of the state will be in the same spot. A high school classmate of mine living in southwestern Indiana, nearly a nine-hour drive from Perry, will, however, be able to watch the tourney live. Nice.

Of course, for the low-low price of only $9.95 you can live stream portions of the tourney, including the early rounds, but again, only if you otherwise have cable, DirecTV or Dish Network access.

How the girls do it

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union has for years allowed Iowa Public Television to televise various state tournaments and receives no fee in exchange. The IGHSAU currently has a three-year deal with IPTV for coverage of the state basketball, softball, soccer and volleyball tournaments. IPTV is available statewide, of course, including for those receiving television “over the air” without cable or satellite service.

It will be most interesting to see the reaction of the state over the next few weeks. Hundreds of thousands of Iowans are about to discover they will not be able to watch the state wrestling and boys state basketball tournaments on their televisions but will have no problem finding the girls state cage tourney.

The upshot

So what we have here is a company trying to make a profit. Again, certainly nothing wrong there. However, it is worrisome that the print and internet companies that have been providing coverage of their schools all season long are now being restricted as never before.

Much of this heat is going to fall on the IHSAA, who will be the easiest target to attack. It really is not their fault, as it was the IHSSN who signed the CSN Chicago contract.

Third-ranked Daniel Sommerlot of Pocahontas Area tries to slip away from Woodward-Granger’s Tanner Vermaas during the first round of the 182-pound bracket at the 2016 Class 2A state tournament.

But the IHSAA is not without blame, as they were the ones who surrendered control of what the media is often reminded is “our tournament” and which they co-ordinate, staff and operate. For the price, as we have seen, of $60,000 (at least from last school year).

The Iowa State Wrestling Tournament is the crown jewel in America. No other state has the kind of tradition that can be found here. No other state has near the attendance at their tourney. And no other state tourney generates the kind of enormous profits the IHSAA collects from the event.

A few years ago, the IHSAA Bulletin, a monthly magazine, reported a free-and-clear profit of more than $700,000 on state wrestling. With increased admission rates, no doubt those numbers remain in the same ballpark. It is the cash cow, no doubt.

Glenwood’s Trevor Anderson is placed in an uncomfortable position by Perry’s Gisaveri Niyibizi in the 126-pound quarterfinals of the Class 2A state tourney.

Since then, the public release of the expenses and revenues from each sport has not been available. If they have, then my own repeated searches to uncover them have failed, and I would be delighted to learn where they can be found, especially as taxpayer-funded public schools are responsible for generating most of these funds.

Some will say, “Poor media!” and decry me and other sports writers and photographers as spoiled and unappreciative of access the fans would love to have. Others will wonder if each sportswriter bringing these issues to light is blacklisting himself. We shall see.

For more than 25 years, I have been fortunate to snap some great photos at the state meet, which I know those wrestlers, their families and their team’s fans enjoyed. That the young men from Perry, Panorama and Woodward-Granger who might make the tourney this season will almost certainly not receive the same quality of coverage is a shame, but the blame will not lie here.

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