There was once a time when catching your high school basketball state tournament required getting in your car and driving to far-flung corners where unused college arenas would host the semifinal and final rounds. Not anymore. With the help of any variety of different PBS, public access and local broadcasters, nearly every state's basketball finals will be shown on television somewhere, with many also streamed live on the web.
This year, broadcasting those games to a larger, national audience is taking a huge step forward, with ESPN gaining the online streaming rights to the boys and girls state championship games in Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee, as well as the boys semifinals in Illinois and Indiana. The games will be broadcast on the network's ESPN3 online streaming channel, used primarily to show college football and basketball and European soccer. The network streamed high school football finals in Illinois and Oregon's Class 6A football title game, with the Illinois championships the first of any high school sport to be shown on an ESPN platform.
The expansion of ESPN's streaming offerings in high school sports is no insignificant matter. The sports television goliath has added more and more high school football games each fall, and now shows a healthy helping of boys basketball games on its ESPNU network as well, mostly focused on teams featuring top recruits (the same goes for the network's selection of football games). Still, providing a healthy dose of championship action from states in the Midwest and South -- including a state title game featuring the Jeffersonville (Ind.) High girls basketball team, pictured above -- this year will give the network data from which to gauge whether it might make sense to expand and try to gain rights for championships from other states across the country.
It's also significant that ESPN will stream these games in the heart of March Madness. While the title games begin this weekend with girls championships in Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee, the Indiana boys tournament in particular doesn't wrap up until Sat., March 26. That has the Indiana finals playing concurrently with the ESPN's own broadcasting of the NCAA Women's Sweet 16.
Whether the network sees high school basketball as a leveraged play against CBS' expanded broadcast of the NCAA Tournament is a legitimate question, and one which may not be able to be answered fully for a few more years to come. Yet it's not beyond the realm of possibility to think that, if ESPN3 receives significant streaming traffic, the network would logically expand its high school basketball playoff coverage, showing games before the state semifinals, including regional finals in some larger states. That might be a particularly feasible strategy in states (Texas, among others) where such tournaments are held at centralized (usually college) sites across multiple days, just as the state finals are.
Regardless of what happens next, the beginning of the ESPN streaming era this weekend could serve as a watershed for high school basketball, kick starting a process that could elevate it into the national subconscious alongside high school football. Whether the experiment is a success or failure now will likely depend on how many people are willing to tune in online, and how many who are willing to do so even know that ESPN3 exists.