Commercializing High School Sports

April 14, 1993

You're watching a high school sporting event on Howard County's Cable 8 educational access channel. There's a break in the action. Suddenly, the playing field gives way to a car dealership in Columbia, where star schoolboy athlete Biff Jockley is hawking the latest line of Chevrolets:

"Take it from me, sports fans! You'll really make the grade when you get behind the wheel of any of these sleek new Chevies," intones Biff stiffly, surrounded by a showroom full of pick-ups, wagons and sedans.

"These beauties just love to move down the highway and handle tough curves, just like I gobble up gridiron yardage and dodge tacklers.

Yes, you'll be amazed at how. . . "

Relax. The preceding commercial message won't happen, now that Howard County school officials have nixed a proposal to air commercials during Cable 8 sports broadcasts.

As suggested by Steve Bassett, a professional broadcaster who has volunteered his services as a play-by-play announcer on the cable station the past two years, the plan could have doubled the number of high school games on the channel and raised about $1 million through the airing of ads for local businesses. Each Howard high school could have profited to the tune of about $23,000, Mr. Bassett estimated.

School officials declined the offer, explaining that producing the ads would require staff and money the system doesn't have. They also cited the philosophical problem of using one of the purest forms of amateur athletics -- high school sports -- for commercial advertising, even to benefit the schools themselves.

Mr. Bassett argued that his idea deserved more of a hearing than it received, and he might have a legitimate beef.

Still, this appears to be a can of worms best left unopened.

For one thing, local business owners might not be convinced that Cable 8 ratings would justify their advertising dollars. And though commercial TV might never generate as negative an impact on high school sports as it has on college athletics, why leave open this largely unspoiled form of competition to the unpleasant possibility of being transformed into a "product" to be packaged and sold for financial gain?

High school sports are for amateurs, not for hucksters. Howard County school officials are to be commended for understanding that distinction.

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