Picture this. The play-by-play announcer on Howard County's Cable Channel 8 states, "And at the end of the first half of the county championship football game, the score is Wilde Lake 13, Glenelg 0. We'll be back in a minute with halftime statistics. Now, a word from our sponsors."
Commercials on the county's educational access channel? Steve Bassett thinks it's an idea that has arrived.
Bassett, a professional broadcaster who has done play-by-play work on Cable 8 for the past two years, has proposed that the station sell advertising during broadcasts of its featured high school games, and contribute a portion of the revenue to the county's financially-strapped high school athletic programs.
Bassett's proposal, which calls for Cable 8 to broadcast 40 weekly high school games throughout the school year, projects $1 million in advertising revenue from local businesses and corporate sponsors.
After paying the expenses that expanded Cable 8 sportscasts would incur, Bassett figures $560,000 would be left over to divide into three, $186,000 sections. One-third would go to the school board's general fund. One-third would go to the school system's Department of Communications, which provides education programming for Cable 8. The final third would be distributed evenly among the county's eight high schools.
The revenue would amount to about $23,000 per school.
Bassett and Hammond High School athletic director Bob Maxey, who has worked with Bassett on Cable 8 telecasts since last fall, have submitted the proposal to School Superintendent Michael Hickey.
"It's a well-intentioned, creative idea. Mo Kalin [Associate Superintendent of Planning and Support Services] and I hope to get to it by next week," Hickey said. "We might try to bring it to the school board for discussion before the end of the current school year. It's definitely something we can explore."
Bassett decided to propose the advertising idea in response to the school system's persistent budget problems, which have left high school sports programs short on athletic equipment replacement funds. Over the past three years, the high schools have seen those funds cut to $8,600 per school, less than half of the level of three years ago.
"The county is in a budget crisis, the athletic departments are being stripped of their funds, and here is a win-win situation," said Bassett, who owns Bassett Communications, a public relations, broadcasting and video productions firm in Ellicott City.
"The only way for this program to get started is for athletic directors, coaches, parents and kids to get behind it and sell it," he said.
Bassett's proposal has been received favorably by the county's athletic directors.
"It's certainly something we can't afford not to look at. If we're not going to get it from the school board, we've got to get the money from somewhere else," Oakland Mills athletic director Ken Klock said. "You can't support an athletic department at this school on $8,600. I stopped ordering uniforms two years ago. It's gotten to the point where I can't do that."
Mike Williams, the athletic director at Glenelg, wonders where his program would be were it not for the school's Boosters Club. With school board funding of athletics dwindling, each high school depends more on boosters clubs to finance sports programs.
"This idea disconnects the kids from all the nickel and dime business of fundraising that they go through all the time. It [fundraising] is incessant," Williams said. "And the school system keeps squeezing more and more out of us, from the principals on down to the teachers."
Several concerns have been raised about the proposal, beginning with the legality of advertising on the educational access channel. Hickey said that question must be answered before any other debate resumes regarding Bassett's proposal.
Hickey expressed concern about whether the channel has the resources and air time to accommodate an increase in the workload that a 40-game schedule -- complete with well-produced ads -- would require.
Bassett's financial projections also have been greeted with skepticism. Bassett suggests charging advertisers $500 for a 30-second spot, although he adds that, since Cable 8 televises each event six times, it amounts to $83 per spot. Bassett also bases his projections on the assumption that advertisers, besides being willing to pay those kinds of rates, will purchase every spot available during a given game.
"I'm not sure the numbers are as rosy as the proposal suggests," Hickey said. "We don't have any systematic collection of data about viewership of our other educational programs. We know viewership is improving, but we have no idea by how much."