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Going Big Time
L. JON WERTHEIM
March 13, 2006
With more and more top teams barnstorming the nation to play in packed arenas for national television audiences, high school hoops has gotten bigger than ever. It's time to think about what it all means
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March 13, 2006

Going Big Time

With more and more top teams barnstorming the nation to play in packed arenas for national television audiences, high school hoops has gotten bigger than ever. It's time to think about what it all means

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?Find a venue in a medium-sized market. While high school basketball may not cultivate much interest in New York City or Los Angeles, it likely will in, say, Omaha, where last month at the Qwest Center, a crowd of more than 6,000 watched the city's Central High lose to Reserve (La.) Christian School, which features Demond (Tweety) Carter, the nation's alltime high school scoring leader.

?Harvest as many corporate sponsors as possible to help cover the costs of each event.

?Sell the broadcast rights to ESPN, CSTV or a regional sports network. Says Ghazi, "There is a lot of compelling product out there, and the viewers are that 12-to-34 demographic that advertisers want to reach."

Winners abound. The promoters can make as much as $100,000 on a particularly successful game. The networks get programming with surprisingly high ratings, given the relatively low rights fees. (The ESPN networks aired a total of nine games this season, up from three in '04-05. The ratings averaged 0.4 both years, which translates into roughly 380,000 households per game.) School athletic departments can fatten their coffers through fees and equipment contracts. As part of its deal with Reebok, Lawrence North uses a backdrop adorned with the company's logo for televised postgame news conferences. Not to be outdone, Oak Hill allows Nike to sell a Carmelo Anthony Warriors jersey.

It wasn't long ago that recruiting gurus and college coaches evaluated talent by watching a prospect play against weak local opposition or in a ragged summer-league game. Now they head to these national games, where elite players not only go up against other top prospects but also do so in an atmosphere freighted with pressure. When, for instance, Wayne Ellington, a 6'4" North Carolina--bound shooting guard at The Episcopal Academy in suburban Philadelphia, recovered from an off-night to drill the winning shot against Philly's Neumann-Goretti High in a January game at the Palestra that aired on ESPN2, it spoke volumes not just about his skills but also about his competitive makeup. Even more impressive was his teammate, 6'5" Duke-bound swingman Gerald Henderson, who scored a game-high 26 points. "These events give you a better idea of how good a player really is," says Clark Francis, editor and publisher of The Hoop Scoop, a national recruiting newsletter.

The players are enamored of these games as well. What teenager--especially when he has designs on landing a college scholarship--wouldn't prefer performing in a big-time arena and receiving national exposure? "Two of my kids [several years ago] wound up signing at Ohio," says Jim Gosz, coach of Milwaukee's Rufus King High, who's taken his team to Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Indianapolis; Erie, Pa.; and Trenton this season. "It's giving the kids an opportunity they wouldn't normally have."

The stars, meanwhile, earn the kind of recognition that once could have been garnered only in college or the NBA. As a senior at Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High in 2003-04, point guard Sebastian Telfair traveled extensively and received invaluable exposure. "It did a lot for my career," says the 6-foot Telfair, who in 2004 became the first high school player under 6'7" to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft when the Portland Trail Blazers picked him at No. 13. "It created a lot of popularity, and it helped me get a very nice shoe contract [with Adidas]." Nice indeed. It is worth a reported $15 million over six years.

The trend toward pressure-packed TV games and coast-to-coast travel is not, however, without its critics, who contend that this is the latest example of the commoditization of young athletes. "I know televising games is the next frontier for making a buck, but that doesn't make it right," says Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute for Sports Reform. "High school basketball--this last bastion of amateurism--is going to turn into college basketball, with recruiting wars and academic fraud and big money."

The possibility of corruption already lurks. The shoe companies use the games to curry favor with top players and schools, either organizing their own events--such as the Nike Super 6 Invitational at Madison Square Garden--or partnering with a promoter, as Reebok did for the Rise or Fall Challenge, a California event that featured North College Hill. The promoter of that event was Rodney Guillory. In 2000 the NCAA determined that Guillory was working as a runner for the Las Vegas--based agency Franchise Sports when he paid for airline tickets for Jeff Trepagnier of USC and Tito Maddox of Fresno State, resulting in suspensions for both athletes.

Oak Hill's Smith recalls recently telling a promoter that he didn't want to schedule a Wednesday game because he didn't want his players to miss class. The promoter asked whether a $5,000 under-the-table payment could persuade him otherwise. "You hear about coaches taking side money to play in events," says Smith. "It goes on."

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