A fresh pot of coffee brewed and a few cookies in hand, Keith and Di Burnett settle into their living room in Cape Town, South Africa, and prepare to watch their grandson play a high school soccer game some 7,700 miles away.

The Burnetts flip on the television and navigate to a livestream of an Ellsworth High School boys’ soccer game featuring Craig Burnett.

“It’s been absolutely amazing,” Di Burnett said. “It seems almost impossible to us. We can watch this live, and now it’s on full (TV) screen, and the picture is so clear.”

The Burnetts may be a far-flung example of fans being able to watch Maine high school sports in real time, but the biggest impact this fall has been for parents who cannot be at games to watch their children in person during the pandemic.

With spectator limitations at events across the state – some leagues have prohibited fans all together – high school athletic directors have scrambled this fall to find ways to bring the live action to fans.

Many schools began livestreaming their athletic events through YouTube, Facebook Live, or other online platforms to compensate for spectator restrictions. The livestreams have generated widespread interest, with some schools reporting YouTube subscribers in the thousands.

“It’s been great,” said Ellsworth High School athletic director Josh Frost, whose school’s YouTube channel has more than 1,000 subscribers. “We’ve always had the capability to livestream. The last couple years, we’ve livestreamed our home basketball games, a few soccer games and a football game. So we’ve done it over Facebook, using the same camera and streaming box. This year we decided, let’s go on YouTube, just with a lot of people owning smart TVs and whatnot, and you can just pull up YouTube, and people can just watch it on TV, gives you a better quality, better picture, I think. So we decided to stay with YouTube, and it’s been great.

“We had almost 100 (views) or over that for a cross country meet that was hosted (last week), and that’s just small schools, (Mount Desert Island) and Deer Isle kids. To have that many views for a cross country meet was great. Not only that, but it gives people a chance to watch their students, especially when they can’t be there in person.”

The Southwestern Maine Activities Association and the Mountain Valley Conference are prohibiting spectators at sporting events this fall. Others, like the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and Western Maine Conference, limit the number of spectators to comply with Maine COVID-19 requirements that restrict outdoor gatherings to 100 people.

 

“What we’re doing has worked extremely well,” said Lewiston High School athletic director Jason Fuller, who has been using a YouTube channel to get games out to the public. “Having the YouTube channel, the way we created it, works really well. I think the quality is pretty good, having never done something like this. So we’re doing pretty good with it. We’re one of the schools that’s allowing fans at home games. For soccer and field hockey, we’re allowing two parents per kid. So the live stream is not as needed for home games, it’s more for grandparents and other people that want to watch.

“The hard thing is road games,” Fuller continued. “Are the other schools (livestreaming) and what platform they’re using? All these schools are all over the place in terms of the platform they’re using. So, that’s been the hardest thing, is trying to find out what the best (streaming) option for us is.”

Many schools decided to produce their live streams in-house, with volunteers, athletic directors, teachers and even students filming the games on their phones or tablets. Others, however, opted for an outside service to provide livestreams of athletic events. Munzing Media Sports, for example, airs Gardiner and Hall-Dale home sporting events.

Some Maine high schools received free streaming equipment from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Schools would have to pay for installation, which the NFHS estimated at $2,500 for two cameras and $1,500 for one. Schools that accept the streaming equipment agreed to broadcast the events on the NFHS streaming network. Fans would also have to pay to watch athletic events – the NFHS charges $69.99 for an annual subscription. Monthly subscriptions go for $10.99.

While Messalonskee and Winthrop high schools have received and installed the NFHS equipment, others are still waiting.

“That was such a popular deal nationwide, they’re just backlogged,” South Portland athletic director Todd Livingston said. “They have to build a site for every school that wants this – onload I think (is the term) – that’s been delayed. I was told that’s four to five weeks, that was four to five weeks ago and I still haven’t heard anything.”

Livingston said South Portland filled the gap by streaming games via YouTube.

“I think it’s been pretty well received,” Livingston said. “The SMAA agreed that we would have no fans at any of our games, so this provides an opportunity for siblings, parents and grandparents to watch the games, knowing that they can’t be there.”

Winslow High School created three different YouTube channels for fans to access games. Like Ellsworth, Winslow has over 1,000 subscribers on its main channel.

“I think it’s been a good thing, our parents are really happy with it,” Winslow athletic director Jim Bourgoin said. “We’re looking forward to the day COVID is over and we can still stream the games so grandparents out of state can watch, or aunts and uncles. We’re getting better every day that we do it. At first, we had people telling us some of their concerns, and every time we hear a concern, we try to improve it. We’re getting better at it, and we’ve also decided, we’re trying to show all our junior high games for parents, too.”

WORKING OUT THE KINKS

Some athletic directors acknowledge there have been some issues with their livestreams, mostly in presentation.

“Livestreaming is very challenging,” said Waterville athletic director Heidi Bernier, who has presented games via YouTube and had close to 900 views for a 7-on-7 flag football game against Winslow. “The quality isn’t what you would see when viewing college or professional sports. We do not have internet (access) at any of our fields, so we’re relying on a cell phone signal, and are simply doing the best we can.”

Livingston has had similar issues, having to shoot games using an iPad.

“We’re using and iPad to stream, so obviously the quality as great as it might be if we had more time to try to put something together,” Livingston said. “But it was what we did to provide something. … I think the hurdle for us, when things return to normal, we already have our game staff that’s budgeted. This would really have to be a volunteer (position). We were really lucky this fall to find people to volunteer but not need to be paid to help us do this. Doing it in the future would probably have to be contingent upon that.”

 

John Darling’s daughter Emma is a senior on the South Portland field hockey team. For him, the quality of the video is the big thing.

“I will say that some schools are doing a much better job,” he said. “The parent at our school (who does the filming) does it for a living and his videos are amazing … You almost forget that you’re not there. There are other schools where you get vertigo trying to keep up with the video. That kind of takes away from it. If it’s done right, it’s beneficial. If not, it makes you even more ugly that you’re not there.”

And for many schools, doing it right takes time. At Falmouth High, for example, the parents filming the games found it was better to move the camera from inside the press box to the stands.

“I think it helps parents see the players a little more clearly,” said Mark Rand, who shares filming duties at Falmouth with his wife, Amanda. “This is obviously new for everyone, there’s going to be hiccups in the beginning. We talk to people watching from home, they’ll text us and say, ‘Hey, it’s frozen for a second, I can’t make out the numbers.’ We try to do the best we can so they can get the best picture.”

Falmouth uses the Vimeo video platform. Athletic director James Coffey said he considered using Facebook Live and YouTube, but ultimately felt Vimeo provided a better product. For $900 for the year, Falmouth gets unlimited livestreaming and parents can watch for free. It also allows them to store the games so that they can be used for film review.

“It’s easy to use and it’s been great,” said Coffey.

Kim Kennedy live-streams the Skowhegan field hockey game against Lawrence on Friday in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Mark Rand was watching his son play a football game at Gorham — he was filming it for the football team — when, during a break in the action he logged into the field hockey game – which Amanda was filming – and saw his daughter score a goal.

Frost, the Ellsworth AD, said he can pay someone to film his school’s events.

“This year, it’s a stipend position for me,” Frost said. “It’s something I kind of always budgeted for, because I’ve done it in the past. Traditionally, I’ll pay my ticket taker and other workers at games. I don’t have as many people working the games this year, just because we don’t have as many people showing up to games. At soccer games, I usually have two ticket takers, but I only need one this year, because there’s only one entrance area. That money has been budgeted for, and I’m lucky to have a great IT department, and a few members from IT have stepped up and are running the camera for games.”

WAY OF THE FUTURE?

Many athletic directors say livestreaming will continue whether fans can attend games or not.

“It’s always great to see comments on the feed and see ‘Hey, watching from Sarasota, Florida’ or wherever,” Frost said. “It’s just nice to see that they’re tuning in and obviously give them an opportunity to tune in, not have to fly home to watch a basketball game or whatever it may be. That’s been nice… It’s about grasping the technology and running with it, which I’m not afraid of.”

“It seems to be the new thing to do,” said Bourgoin, the Winslow AD. “It’s easy, it doesn’t cost anything, so I see us continuing this beyond COVID.”

Fuller, the Lewiston AD, is not only embracing livestreaming for the future, but he also said Lewiston is looking into other areas of social media to present games as well.

“At this point, for us, it’s a commitment (to stream) moving forward,” Fuller said. “The way we set it up, we put some decent financial (investment) into it, so we’re going to keep this rolling. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, to offer this service. We’ve found a platform that really works for us and we’ll go with that. It’s worked really well, I think we’ll continue using it. I’m excited to see how it works in the winter, potentially, if we have basketball and hockey.”

 

Mike Lowe of the Portland Press Herald contributed to this report.

 

Dave Dyer — 621-5610

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.