A few weeks ago, as Bakari Lewis wrapped up the broadcast of a Lincoln West-Cleveland JFK high school women’s basketball game, he interviewed one of JFK’s players, rookie Precious Elam and coach- chef Rhonda Scharf on the 69-31 win.
“Afterwards, she (Scharf) was just thrilled that we highlighted the kids and introduced them,” said Lewis, a former Shaker Heights High School basketball player. “They were just too excited about it, for anyone to care.”
The game was one of the first broadcasts on Senator Live, a free streaming service launched in January for students and families in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
The service will broadcast 30 Senate League sporting events – live and on-demand – in the first year of a three-year deal. Senate Live’s first broadcasts were basketball games for high school boys and girls, but it has already expanded to sports such as swimming, wrestling and indoor track as part of its partnership with DistrictWON.
“We had never streamed on our sports sites before, so having this opportunity come to us like this was a dream come true,” said Desiree Powell, director of interscholastic athletics at CMSD. “A lot of sporting directors would like to be in my shoes.”
DistrictWON, which is based in Rocky River, is a national company that seeks to bring funds to school districts through sponsorship programs it signs with business partners such as Kia, T-Mobile and Farmers Insurance. Bowling Green State University is the “presenting sponsor” of Senator Live, which is also sponsored by Falls & Co., a Cleveland-based marketing company, and First Federal Lakewood.
“We’re kind of like a giant booster club,” said DistrictWON CEO and President Peter Fitzpatrick. “Let me give you an example. FirstEnergy pays who knows what to sponsor the Browns stadium all year round. So we’ll go to a big company like FirstEnergy and say, ‘In addition to – or instead of – doing this, why haven’t we placed your signs in the end zones of 250 high school stadiums in northeast Ohio?
“We charge a little less, and we take that money and pass it on to the schools where the signs are.”
High school streaming services aren’t new. Many school districts across the country have adopted them in recent years, a trend that has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they’re more common in affluent communities and can cost $10 a month or more.
“Unfortunately, a number of schools were left behind (streaming), and one category was urban school districts,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are dedicated to this area – we’ve been a long-time Cleveland-based company – and this was something we felt was important to do to support the foundation of this area, which is young children in CMSD.
“What’s funny to me is that a lot of kids in Cleveland and CMSD have never had a game on any platform. It’s a joy to see us doing events that aren’t usually covered. “
Senate Live has also been a blessing for family members who can’t always make it to the games, whether because of COVID-19, inadequate transportation, or because they live out of the area. or even out of state.
“We even have extended family that lives in other countries,” Powell said. “I check in with them (DistrictWON) all the time and ask them, ‘Where are people watching us from? What kind of exposure are we from?'”
The answer: a little. A recent Senate League boys’ basketball game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse drew over 1,100 viewers despite only starting around 10 p.m. due to a Cleveland Cavaliers home game.
“We’ll only see maybe 200 people in the stands for the fight, and they’ll tell me there’s 300 or 400 people watching online,” Powell said. “I’m like, ‘Are you serious?'”
Lewis is the executive producer of the shows, which use the Cleveland-based BoxCast streaming platform. The plan is that as the service grows, CMSD students will produce, operate and broadcast the majority of events.
“I believe a lot 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 the kids to do practice sessions, so by the time we go back to school, they’ll be ready to make games in real time.”
This is where Bowling Green comes in. The school hopes that once students gain interest and experience in sports media, they will 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 expansion Seattle Kraken.
“The sports sector is woefully underrepresented in terms of minority involvement,” Fitzpatrick said. “It would be a great thing for us if we could help create something special in Cleveland.”
In some ways they already have. Lewis said he’s seen players get upset when he walks into a gym to do a show.
“You can tell they want to put in 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 it gives them exposure, but it also really captures that moment in their lives forever. It gives them something to look back on and say, ‘That’s who I was in high school. It gives them a tangible memory they will always have and reflect on for the rest of their lives.”