Gorman: For WPIAL, positive exposure
Never did George Novak imagine taking his Woodland Hills Wolverines to Texas or having a Florida powerhouse come to Western Pennsylvania to play a high school football game.
Nor did Novak dream he would coach against one of his former players and proteges in Thomas Jefferson's Bill Cherpak in a WPIAL nonconference season opener televised live by Root Sports locally but also picked up by Fox Sports for a national audience.
"That will be fantastic," Novak said. "It's a real positive thing."
Only seven years ago there was a negative reaction to televising high school football, especially when Root Sports (formerly FSN Pittsburgh) initiated its Thursday night telecasts. No one objected to televising the WPIAL championships, but asking coaches to switch schedules was met with either a gasp or grunt by much of the old guard. Despite the TV partnership, the WPIAL was reserved in its support of Thursday night games, and Novak was among the old-school coaches who declined to move home games to Thursdays for fear of losing gate revenue.
"We took a wait-and-see attitude because high school football on Friday night in Western Pennsylvania was viewed as sacred," WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said. "The fact that it has become popular and people are seeing the value of exposure is a positive thing."
The Thomas Jefferson-Woodland Hills matchup is one of three WPIAL regular-season games that will be televised nationally. ESPN will show Central Catholic-Archbishop Wood at Gateway on Sept. 4 and Hopewell at Central Valley on Oct. 14. Hopewell running back Rushel Shell, who could be the WPIAL all-time rushing leader by then, is expected to announce his college choice from among Alabama, Florida, Pitt and Virginia Tech.
It should only enhance the WPIAL's reputation.
"Western Pennsylvania football is pretty well recognized, and this will exaggerate it," O'Malley said. "How much interest it garners throughout the country, I'll be interested to see. It's not a bad thing to see what goes on here demonstrated nationwide."
As someone who has been involved in Root Sports' high school football production as a sideline reporter, color commentator and studio analyst, I was fascinated to see the reception by the communities of the schools that agreed to play on Thursday nights. Point a camera at the crowd, and watch the energy and volume inside a stadium rise almost instantaneously. The increased exposure has turned high school stars into household names.
And they are about to become known nationally.
"It's a phenomenal product to put on, one that showcases the total experience and rich history of Western Pennsylvania high school football," said Root Sports general manager Shawn McClintock, who takes ESPN's interest as a compliment. "Whether there's a direct line in what we started, I don't know. But the stories we told over seven years, absolutely people have taken notice. They dabble in it, but it's not nearly the commitment we have and focus on the student-athletes, coaches, cheerleaders, bands and communities. It's a unique, special thing at our disposal."
If there is a negative, it's the tinkering with schedules.
Central Catholic coach Terry Totten and his Vikings are risking their No. 1 WPIAL Class AAAA ranking by the Tribune-Review and No. 7 in the East by USA Today by playing Archbishop Wood on a Sunday night, and worries that they will have little time to prepare for Bethel Park the following Friday.
"We didn't have much choice — the game was set," Totten said. "But we're not going to throw a blanket on the party."
What ESPN will learn is that high school football generates the most interest when shown live, not when television stations can fit it into their programming. Root Sports suffered when it started showing Thursday night games on tape delay because of conflicts with the Pirates and Penguins.
Instead, Root Sports won't televise games in Weeks 2 and 4 and will use flexible scheduling for the final five weeks and playoffs. Comcast has all four defending WPIAL champions on its nine-game schedule, but the games won't be available until three days later and only On Demand.
While Totten finds it "funny that the overhyping of all sports" have trickled down to high schools, he also knows how a great game before a national audience can be beneficial to players hoping to impress college coaches.
"The last eight years have been ridiculous in the exposure of high school football," Totten said. "You can turn it on in your house and watch a national game. There's sort of a genesis with Pittsburgh. Obviously, there's a market for it or we wouldn't still be doing it. It's caught on."
For high school football here, that promises to be a positive thing.