Stuck in the middle

Cable viewers left in the dark by new Iowa high school sports TV agreement

The state coverage map for cable companies offering Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

In case you missed it, Messenger-area schools Bishop Garrigan and Webster City played in two of the six thrilling state football championship games last week at the UNI-Dome. Iowa City Regina finally lost its grip on a six-year gold stranglehold. West Des Moines Dowling and Pella kept their modern-day dynasties intact.

As usual, it was a stretch of non-stop action for fans in Cedar Falls. So why are so many people around central and western Iowa in the dark about what transpired?

Thousands of Mediacom cable television subscribers were unable to tune in and watch as the semifinals and finals took place. Games were broadcast by the Iowa High School Sports Network on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, a channel not currently offered in the Mediacom lineup.

There are nearly half a million Mediacom customers in Iowa. If you are a cable subscriber living west of Interstate 35 — Fort Dodge-area and Des Moines markets included — you likely didn’t see a single snap from the Dome.

It gets worse. The deal the IHSSN signed with Comcast SportsNet — announced this past July in partnership with the Iowa High School Athletic Association — also includes coverage of the upcoming boys state basketball tournament, and yes, even the crown jewel of Iowa high school sports: the state wrestling tournament this coming February. So if you are kicking rocks about missing football, you might be rolling boulders by the time basketball and wrestling roll around.

How did we get to this point? On the record, it’s hard to say definitively. I discussed the situation with officials at both the IHSAA and IHSSN this week, and they insist the decision was made with the greater good of the average person in mind — both from a production and viewership standpoint.

While partnering with Comcast SportsNet may have been the best offer on the table — either literally or figuratively, depending on your point of view — it’s hard to overlook one simple blind spot in the transaction: yes, Dish Network and DirecTV both carry Comcast Sports Net Chicago, but Mediacom in central and western Iowa didn’t then, doesn’t now, and may not into the near or even distant future.

The knee-jerk conclusion is to blame Mediacom; after all, it looks like they’re playing hard ball with CSN and the IHSSN, right? Again, it’s not that simple. When the deal was made public this past summer, Mediacom had two choices: either add CSN and increase subscription rates — always a sore spot for customers — or continue to offer their current packages without CSN, avoiding a price increase but obviously weakening their position in this particular matter.

Of course, when money becomes the center of attention for one reason or another in transactions like these, the “little guy” in the equation — i.e., you and me — usually loses out. As a Dish subscriber, I experienced similar moments of frustration a few months ago when we lost our WHO-TV/NBC programming and missed the Olympics. As the corporate suits were conducting their high-dollar standoff, we were forced to the sidelines, begrudgingly holding the bag until it ended.

The IHSAA and IHSSN made the best deal for them. The same can be said for Comcast SportsNet. And in a lot of ways, the argument is valid. The Iowa state football championships were delivered with an outstanding HD production this year to more homes than ever before. Granted, many of those viewers were in Chicago and states around the midwest that couldn’t care less, but I digress.

Was this truly the best option for the people of Iowa? Knowing full well beforehand that approximately 200,000 cable subscribers in our own backyard would be tuned out and turned away?

In the eyes of many, I’m sure I’m being naive and oversimplifying the situation. Perhaps. But at this point, I’m only interested in speaking on behalf of you, the viewer and the fan. Who is sticking up for us?

We know where the IHSAA and IHSSN stand. We know where Comcast SportsNet stands. We know where the cable companies stand. They all have their ground to cover and a bottom line to defend.

When everyone says they’re right, though, someone has to be wrong. And until one of the parties involved shows a little flexibility and empathy for the people over the process, we’ll continue to be on the wrong — and wronged — side.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at