A few weeks ago, as Bakari Lewis wrapped up a broadcast of a Lincoln West-Cleveland JFK high school girls basketball game, he interviewed one of the JFK players, freshman Precious Elam, and head coach Rhonda Scharf about the 69-31 victory.
“Afterward, she (Scharf) was just elated that we highlighted the kids and showcased them,” said Lewis, a former Shaker Heights High School basketball player. “They were just over-the-top excited about it, that someone cared.”
The service will air 30 Senate League sporting events — live and on-demand — in the first year of a three-year agreement. Senate Live’s first broadcasts were high school boys and girls basketball games, but it has already expanded to sports such as swimming, wrestling and indoor track under its partnership with DistrictWON.
“We had not done any streaming at our athletic venues before, so to have this opportunity come to us like this, it was a dream come true,” said Desiree Powell, the director of interscholastic athletics at CMSD. “A lot of athletic directors wish they were in my shoes.”
DistrictWON, which is based in Rocky River, is a national company that looks to bring funding into school districts through sponsorship programs it signs with corporate partners such as Kia, T-Mobile and Farmers Insurance. Bowling Green State University is the “presenting sponsor” of Senate Live, which also has sponsorships from Falls & Co., a Cleveland-based marketing company, and First Federal Lakewood.
“We’re kind of like a giant booster club,” DistrictWON CEO and president Peter Fitzpatrick said. “Let me give you an example. FirstEnergy pays who knows what to sponsor the Browns’ stadium all year. So we’ll go to a large company like FirstEnergy and say, ‘In addition — or instead — of doing that, why don’t we put your signs in the end zones of 250 high school stadiums in Northeast Ohio?’
“We charge a little bit less, and we take that money and pass it through the schools where the signs are.”
High school streaming services aren’t new. A large number of school districts nationwide have adopted them in recent years, a trend that only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they’re more common in affluent communities and can cost $10 per month or more.
“Unfortunately, a number of schools have been left behind (on streaming), and one category was urban school districts,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re devoted to this area — we’ve been a Cleveland-based company for a long time — and this was something we felt was important to do to support the foundation of this area, which is young kids in CMSD.
“The fun thing for me is, a lot of kids in Cleveland and in CMSD have never had a game on any platform. It’s been a joy to see us do events that don’t typically get covered.”
Senate Live has also been a blessing for family members who can’t always make it to games, whether that’s because of COVID-19, inadequate transportation or because they live out of the area or even out of the state.
“We even have extended family who live in other countries,” Powell said. “I’m checking in with them (DistrictWON) all the time, asking, ‘Where are people watching us from? What kind of exposure are we getting?'”
The answer: quite a bit. A recent Senate League boys basketball game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse drew more than 1,100 viewers despite not starting until around 10 p.m. due to a Cleveland Cavaliers home game.
“We may only see 200 people in the stands for wrestling, and they’ll tell me there are 300 or 400 people watching online,” Powell said. “I’m like, ‘Are you serious?'”
Lewis is the executive producer for the broadcasts, which utilize the Cleveland-based BoxCast streaming platform. The plan is, as the service grows, CMSD students will produce, operate and broadcast the majority of the events.
“I believe a large number of students will be interested in doing this type of work,” Powell said. “We have something called Summer Learning Experiences, and there may be time this summer for kids to do some practice sessions, so by the time we get back to school, they’ll be ready to do real-time games.”
That’s where Bowling Green comes in. The school hopes that once the students gain interest and experience in sports media, they’ll enroll in media programs like the one offered at Bowling Green. BGSU recently made news when one of its graduates, Everett Fitzhugh, became the first Black announcer in NHL history when he was hired by the expansion Seattle Kraken.
“The sports business is woefully underrepresented in terms of minority involvement,” Fitzpatrick said. “It would be a big thing for us if we can help create something special in Cleveland.”
In some ways, they already have. Lewis said he’s already seen players get excited when he walks into a gym to do a broadcast.
“You can tell they want to put on their best performance,” said Lewis, who played three seasons of college basketball at the Division I level for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Obviously, this gives them exposure, but it also really captures this moment of their lives forever. It gives them something to look back on and say, ‘This is who I was in high school.’ It gives them a tangible memory they’ll always have that they can reflect on for the rest of their lives.”