Blog Wild for High School Sports

It's a news hole that would swallow anyone or anything: coverage of high school sports in West Michigan. With more than 100 schools instructing high schoolers in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan and Muskegon counties alone, the number of potential stories is downright staggering when you consider the wide range of boys and girls sports offered three quarters of the year.

But local bloggers see an opportunity to fill at least a bit of the hole with their own mini-media outlets that can morph into possible business opportunities.

"Three-line stories irk me," says Ryan Vaughn, 24, one of the new entrepreneurs who thinks local high school sports coverage can be kicked up a notch and serve as a business model. He looks to fill that void with his WestMIAllStar.com, an online blog that he launched in early winter last year to cover boys and girls prep sports that report on everything from baseball to bowling.

For Don Passenger and Dan Wytko, the launch of their michigancrosscountry.com and michigantrackandfield.com websites was rooted in the nagging belief that the high school cross country methodology for rating boys and girls teams statewide did not a represent a fair ranking system. Through their efforts, their sites now rank boys and girls for both the upper and lower peninsulas in track and cross country.

For Brian Edwards -- an avowed "over-zealous hockey dad" -- the Internet provided an outlet for his frustration that there were "hardly any local media covering high school hockey." Edwards, publisher of Revue magazine in Grand Rapids and an observer of media trends, says he has posted more than 1,600 posts on his blog , The WMHSH Blog that he launched three years ago to cover the high school hockey scene. He estimates that the site has attracted about 500,000 page views from 255,000 unique visitors during that time.

Although his hockey site remains a hobby, Edwards, 45, says similar sites can be legitimate business opportunities should someone devote the time and resources to build a sustainable community. And he noted that mainstream media has gotten better at covering high school hockey since he launched his site.

Trying to Fill the Hole
At least two sites seem to corroborate Edward's assessment of how the coverage of high school sports in general has grown on a national level; HighSchoolSports.net , which has over 7,000 schools subscribing to their athletic management system and MaxPreps.com, a CBSSports.com site, that "aspires to cover every team, every game and every player" in the country.

And MLive, the website that bills itself as Michigan's most popular news and information site, is beefing up its coverage of high school sports with its recently launched High School Sports Network. Owned by Advance Internet in Jersey City, N.J., MLive culls stories from the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle and five other Michigan newspapers on all facets of news, including high school sports. MLive is actively recruiting "coaches, statisticians and community score reporters" to keep tabs on team statistics, standings and schedules. With more than1.7 million unique visitors and 66 million page views per month, MLive casts a wide net in communities largely outside of Detroit.

Even with behemoths like MLive entering the fray, Vaughn and others say there is plenty of room for local blogging. A self-described sports junkie with a passion for writing, Vaughn says he was running the Internet business of a Grand Haven auto parts dealer while trying to break into the journalism industry, but "all the work I could get were sporadic, stringer jobs for local newspapers." With his bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University earned in 2008, he took his first dip in the sport blogging pool by focusing on his love for the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Lions.

He soon learned that "everyone" blogs about the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Lions, which made it difficult for him to differentiate his site from the hundreds of other blogs on the same subject. While the venture never took off, the Grand Haven native chalked it up as good experience, prompting him to hook up with a local sports radio station in January last year that covered high school basketball mostly in Allegan, Ottawa and Kent Counties.

Vaughn says he followed them to games and then wrote up reports on his blog, but was temporarily benched when the radio station ended its coverage with the conclusion of the season. Undeterred, he continued to recap the season, asking followers of his blog to vote for players they thought should make an all-star team. On the day of the contest announcement, Vaughn saw an immediate response with 1,000 views.

Encouraged by the success of the all-star team and not wanting to wait until next season, Vaughn says he continued to follow high school sports by attending local baseball games, often finding himself the only media member present. As he continued to blog through the dog days of the summer, the hard work paid off. In September 2009, Vaughn was approached by the radio station ESPN 96.1 to help cover boys football and blog about the game of the week.

With increased promotion and little compensation, Vaughn teamed up with another blogger that then allowed more coverage of games and individual stories. With this increased presence WestMIAllStar.com attracted a peak of 50,000 hits a month in October and November. Sponsors of the site include Davenport University and ESPN 96.1 FM.

Vaughn continues to work on building his blog and networking in the West Michigan high school sports scene. He also has ambitions to leverage his experience with WestMIAllStar.com by creating a new concept called Varsinet.com, which he recently pitched to the Momentum-MI program, a Michigan-based venture firm that specializes in technology start-ups. Vaughn's pitch was successful enough that Varsinet.com was selected as one of 25 concepts to continue through the Momentum-MI application process. Although the idea is still developing, and there is only a placeholder at the online address, Vaughn indicates that when fully functional it "will give the power of publication to the schools themselves."

Dedication to the Sport
Although they both focus on high school athletics, Passenger's motivation for creating his sites were different than Vaughn's. Passenger, 49, a cross country coach for West Catholic High School in Grand Rapids, and his partner, Dan Wytko, felt that the method for ranking boys cross-country teams statewide wasn't accurate. The pair decided three years ago to create their own divisional-based system that has since become "the most relied on cross country ranking for statewide prep cross country," Passenger says.

Since launching their site michigancrosscountry.com , Passenger says their state wide rankings are distributed to all print media sources "we are aware of" and picked up by 135 media outlets. With Gazelle Sports in Kentwood as an initial underwriter, their costs remain modest and are covered through some advertising dollars. But Passenger says there aren't any plans to monetize the site because its primary purpose is to promote cross country running. "We could not do our rankings without the dedicated group of experienced coaches who spend several hours each weekend pouring over the results to submit rankings that we then compile, " he says.

By using their system and then aggressively communicating race results weekly to various traditional media streams, michigancrosscountry.com has become the premier source for this information.

"We had 16,700 views in 24 hours after we posted the regional cross country results" Passenger says. Besides cross-country, they also provide a similar service for high school track and field, primarily focusing on team rankings. They use michigantrackandfield.com to share this information, although it is essentially the same online address as their cross country site.

Passenger says he, Wytko, and their third team member, Kevin Behmer, are just avid supporters of high school athletics and aren't motivated by profits. He says they have become through their websites the leading advocates of using technology to promote high school athletics, serving as official technology consultants to the Michigan High School Athletic Association and recently sharing their experience at the annual Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Cross Country Clinic and Track Clinic.

"Our next steps are to begin archiving state wide cross country results" Passenger says. "We also would like to grow into including feature stories on the athletes."

Edwards feels that bloggers like himself actually are helping the traditional media by serving as resources for key information and match ups, especially in niche sports like hockey. He refers to a new high school sports site, West Michigan High School Baseball, started by Jeff Vander Ark, as another example of someone seeing a need in the community.

With the down sizing of traditional print media, a number of local community newspapers can no longer afford to provide the coverage that many parents of high school athletes remember when they were growing up. So blogs can fill this void, says Jeff Elbe of East Grand Rapids, whose son Ryan plays for multiple sports at East Grand Rapids High School. "It's a straight forward way of looking at high school sports from a parent's and fan's perspective," Elbe says. "It gives me a much more convenient way of following these sports."


John Rumery is an instructor of Entrepreneurship at Grand Valley State University, WYCE music programmer, blogger, raconteur and elite barbecuer living in Grand Rapids.

Photos:

Ryan Vaughn photographed on location at Grand Rapids Christian High School (3)

Don Passenger photographed on location at West Catholic High School (3)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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