Wis. association claims ownership of high school sports coverage

WISCONSIN -- Spurred by a local newspaper's unauthorized Web streaming of a high school football game, the organization that oversees high school athletics in Wisconsin is suing for the right to control all media produced at sports events for commercial use.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association is seeking a legal declaration that it has ownership rights over "any transmission, internet stream, photo, image, film, videotape, audiotape, writing, drawing or other depiction" of athletic events it organizes. The WIAA is also seeking a declaration that it has the right to grant exclusive contracts for this coverage.

The broad language of the claim -- Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Peter Fox said he's calling it an "incomprehensible overreach" -- inspired a barrage of newspaper editorials across the state claiming the WIAA's stance would stifle news coverage of high school sports.

"Essentially what the WIAA is suggesting is that beyond the words and the photos that newspapers put on newsprint and deliver to people's front porches, newspapers can't report on high school sports," Fox said.

Russ Golla, an attorney in the firm representing the athletic association, said the lawsuit is necessary to stay in compliance with contracts designed to increase media coverage. A few years ago, the WIAA sought out media outlets that would agree to broadcast a wide range of high school sports events -- including sports traditionally less highly publicized, such as track and field or swimming -- in exchange for exclusive rights, Golla said.

The lawsuit stems from a Nov. 8, 2008, football game between Stevens Point Senior High School and Appleton North High School in Stevens Point, Wisc., which was live-streamed on the Web site of the Appleton Post-Crescent. Golla said that if the WIAA allowed the newspaper to live-stream tournament games, "we would be in violation of the contracts that we have with people who stepped up to the plate and said they would do this."

Under the WIAA's media policy, news organizations are not allowed to broadcast live or show delayed coverage of an entire athletic contest. For example, videotaping the whole game is fine as long as the news organization only shows clips, Golla said. News organizations can pay fees for the right to broadcast.

Dan Flannery, executive editor of the Post-Crescent, said the newspaper does not believe the WIAA should be able to dictate its coverage.

"We believe we should be able to cover news in whatever form, whatever technology is available to us," he said.

Flannery said the timing of the lawsuit was surprising because they met with WIAA officials and their legal counsel on Dec. 18 to see if the two groups could reach a compromise, and the newspaper was not told the lawsuit had already been filed Dec. 5. The claim itself is alarming, he said, because it does not specifically list newer technologies, but even includes "writing."

Golla said the "writing" part is aimed at live-blogging or other written play-by-play updates. He said the association would have to check its contracts to see whether the WIAA could allow limited blogging like the National Collegiate Athletic Association permits at college sports events.

Fox said he was not certain how the WIAA's policies might affect high school student newspapers since few have that level of online capability yet, but it could be a possibility."I would fear that if a student newspaper had similar electronic capabilities, it would find itself being prohibited from covering its own sports team," he said.

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