CHICAGO — As Chicago Public Schools face a $1 billion deficit, prompting the closure of 54 schools, the district has sold TV rights to high school basketball games for a fraction of what schools in New York and Los Angeles have.
According to contracts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Keith Griffith of the Chicago Grid business-news website, CPS received only $8,000 total for four games carried nationally by cable sports giant ESPN. The district got the same $2,000 a game for six games airing locally on Weigel Broadcasting, best known for its Chicago flagship, WCIU-Channel 26.
Those figures were confirmed by CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler, as well as Weigel Executive Vice President Neal Sabin and Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing Group, a Niles firm that arranged the rights for the ESPN games. The Chicago Grid piece suggested CPS could bundle Public League TV rights for six figures, much as high schools have done in New York City and Los Angeles.
"It kind of depends on the market," said Ed Sherman, a longtime Chicago sports media writer who now runs his own Sherman Report website.
Ghazi pointed out that the New York and Los Angeles deals both went to regional cable-TV networks in intense competition: New York to Time Warner, LA to Fox Sports West. Chicago doesn't have the same sort of competitive environment for local sports.
Jeff Nuich, spokesman for Comcast SportsNet Chicago, the city's leading cable sports channel, said it's fairly booked up with pro teams like the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks. It hasn't shown the same interest in competing against Weigel, or even WTTW-Channel 11 for high school games.
"And you have to factor in the production costs," Sherman said. "None of those production people come cheap."
"There are significant production costs involved," Ghazi acknowledged, and not just in the actual game coverage. When a company like Paragon arranges for a team like Simeon to play a game against a high-profile national opponent for an ESPN game in, say, Texas, it agrees to pay all travel expenses. Should the lighting not be up to snuff for national TV, it also has to contract in light trucks.
"It's always easy to say the rights are worth more. But then there's the reality that somebody's got to write the checks and pay the production costs," Ghazi said. "Our financial model doesn't work beyond what we're paying."
At the same time, however, he granted that Chicago has nationally captivating figures for hoops aficionados, such as Simeon senior Jabari Parker, one of the top high-school players in the country, and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor, ranked by many as the top junior in the country, who'll still be drawing attention next year.
"Okafor would be big," Ghazi allowed.
Sherman said that competition is increasing in cable sports, with Fox Sports rising to challenge ESPN and bolstering its regional sports network.
Ghazi added that NBC Sports Net and CBS College Sports could also get involved in a possible race for programming that might benefit CPS.
"I'm sure the exposure is something the kids and the schools like, getting City of Chicago basketball out there," Sherman said.
Ziegler said the financially strained school system will "continue to review all of our contracts and service agreements throughout the district in order to find savings and to increase revenue opportunities so that we have more dollars to invest in student learning."
"That includes continuing to pursue broadcast agreements in the future."
Ghazi praised Mayor Rahm Emanuel's involvement last year with the Elite Basketball Classic and said CPS could indeed market games better and bundle them into an attractive TV package, but he was skeptical about major gains to be had.
"If the demand was there for the rights," Ghazi said, "someone would have reached out already to CPS."