By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
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The team boards a line of buses waiting in front of the massive school. They drive through the lush landscaping of Weston, a land of homeowners' associations and picture-perfect golf courses — there are three between the school and the highway. They pass the clean, well-lighted strip malls, the Circuit City, the Office Depot, the Olive Garden, the McDonald's, the sushi places and steak houses. Then they hit I-75, headed south to Miami International Airport.
During spring practices in March, Coach Guandolo knew his team would be good this year. He had a deep, speedy running attack, a trio of linebackers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship offers among them, and a core of seniors with experience on both sides of the ball. So he put a call in to a friend, Dave Stephenson.
Stephenson is owner and founder of Titus Sports Marketing, a Dallas-based company leading a quiet but lucrative industry aimed at bringing big corporate money together with high school athletics. Titus arranges — then markets — football games among the top programs in the nation. They've also secured naming-rights contracts for corporations to advertise in high school athletic facilities.
Before starting Titus, Stephenson was president of Dave Campbell's Texas Football, a yearly magazine that previews every team in Texas — professional, college, and high school — and is often called "the Bible of Texas football." In 2005, Stephenson organized a game between Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, and Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, a private school in Hollywood, Florida. At the time, Chaminade-Madonna was coached by Mark Guandolo.
When Guandolo called Stephenson again last spring, it just so happened Titus had been in talks with Katy High School — an historically dominant football program west of Houston. Guandolo agreed to bring his team to Rhodes Stadium in Texas the first week in October.
Hyped as "The Battle at Rhodes," the game was sold to ESPN, the first time either school would play on national TV. It was scheduled for prime-time broadcast, with Old Spice, Nike, and the U.S. Marines as sponsors.
Titus would put up the money to pay for the flights, food, and hotel expenses of the Cypress Bay team, including travel for a hundred people. Katy and Titus split the revenue from ticket sales and the fee ESPN pays to broadcast the game. Cypress Bay got free national exposure.
ESPN doesn't pay high schools directly to broadcast the games. It pays a third-party firm, Paragon Marketing Group, which in turn pays Titus, which then pays Katy its share. None of the three companies involved would disclose the terms of the agreement. And a spokesman for ESPN would not say how much the network charges for commercial time. Rusty Dowling, athletic director for Katy Independent School District, says the school is still calculating revenues and would not discuss specific numbers.
Last year, Titus brokered a deal to bring then-state champion Miami Northwestern to Dallas to play Southlake Carroll. More than 30,000 people filled Southern Methodist University's Ford Stadium to watch Miami beat the Dragons 29-21, snapping a Texas state record 49-game winning streak.
Since then, Stephenson says, high schools from all over the country have contacted him asking if he can do the same thing for them.
"If we can help out high schools to bring in more revenue in this day and age where schools are hurting for money, that's huge," Stephenson says. "It's a little bit different if we were selling advertising in a classroom, if we were selling advertising on a blackboard or students' lockers. But we're selling advertising at a football venue."
To broadcast the Cypress Bay versus Katy game, ESPN sent in a crew used to filming college football. The week before, producer Steve Melton worked a game between the University of South Florida and North Carolina State. Melton says most of the high school stadiums aren't as equipped for TV broadcast as college venues are. The crew installs steel and wood scaffolding for cameras at the top of the stadium. Another platform and camera are placed in the home end zone, not far from the stuffed Katy tiger. Microphones and wires are installed along the sideline for cameras on the field and easy access for the sideline reporter.
For ESPN, this year is the first season that the network has broadcast a full, 19-week schedule of high school football. "Go back to 2002; ESPN took a chance and aired a high school [basketball] game that LeBron James played in," Melton says. "The ratings for that game were huge. There was a lot of interest. Between that and different internet hits for ESPN, it was determined that there was a huge audience out there."
ESPN Rise, a new company brand, is devoted to everything high school-related. "I think it's untapped on the sports side," says James Brown, senior vice president at Rise, which is aimed at enlarging the station's 12- to 17-year-old audience. "It gives us an opportunity to not only talk about what they do on the field but also what's going on in their lifestyle, what shoes do they wear, what music they listen to, what kind of things they do in the community."