By Mark Neuling

Football season is upon us again.  I’m talking about the kind of football that’s played on Friday nights.   In some places there might only be a few dozen folks in the stands, at others there could be several thousand.  In small towns and large towns all across America; Friday’s are for high school football.

A high school football player turns up field at Woodside High School, Woodside, California. November 15, 1997.
©Mark Neuling 2004

Early in my television career I worked out of a small production truck doing multiple-camera cablecasts of high school games.  We had one real-time instant replay machine; the announcers weren’t very good; they were volunteers.  It was primitive but it was also a great learning experience as I was working along side professionals who had worked a variety of sporting events including the Olympics. 
In time I moved on to a “broadcast” station where for a decade I spent Friday’s traveling throughout the San Francisco Bay Area taping highlights that we would air later that evening.   Some of these schools I’ve been to dozens of times; other schools I've passed through only once.  There are schools I’ve taught or coached at.  Some of the fields I played football on as a teenager.  I know that from Washington High School in San Francisco I can see the spires of the Golden Gate Bridge.  From the stands of Half Moon Bay High School I can see the sun set into the Pacific.  And of course I learned which schools had the best barbecued hot dogs for those quick half time dinners.

Fans cheer for their team. Woodside, California. November 15, 1997.
©Mark Neuling 2004

The Bay Area is a microcosm of peoples, races and cultures.  But high school football is one of the unifying forces that can touch nearly everyone.  Black and white, Hispanic or Asian, rich and poor; from urban schools to rural ones, public or private, most schools field a football team.  While the Bay Area may not be as rabid about football as say Texas, we hold our own here.  De La Salle High School in Concord took on all comers and set a national record in winning 151 straight games dating back to 1991. 

High school football hasn’t changed a great deal in the decades since I played it.  Yes there are artificial surfaces now, but the lighting at most fields is still lousy.  The kids seem to spend more time hitting the weights and the defenses are more sophisticated; but there are still skinny 6’3” 175 pound kids trying to tackle two hundred pound tailbacks who’ll be getting scholarships to college  because they can run a hundred yards in less than ten seconds and hit you like a load of bricks.

One thing that has changed is the amount of television coverage that high school sport in general gets.  In my day, simply put, there was no television reporting for prep sports of any kind.  Only the local paper covered us with any kind of consistency.  But back in the early 90’s the little independent station I worked for decided to take a bold step.  They started a half-hour show on Friday nights devoted entirely to high school football.

Over the years the show grew to an hour, spanned 40 weeks, covered a geographic area from Marin to Monterey and expanded it’s coverage to include basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and baseball while giving exposure to lesser sports as well.  Athletes I’ve covered and done stories on have gone on to the professional ranks, Olympic gold and the cover of Sports Illustrated. 

Cameraman Ric Shiraki shoots post-game congratulations at a championship basketball game. January – 1995.
©Mark Neuling 2004

Softball practice starts in the Silicon Valley. Spring – 1998.
©Mark Neuling 2004
Ours was the station in the Bay Area that was associated with prep sports.  When, on the rare occasion that other stations were at a game, they were often mistaken for our crews.  Their highlights could rarely hold a candle to ours. Because of our experience and the frequency with which we covered the prep sport beat, our staff became highly proficient at shooting sports; and the shooters were all highly competitive with each other.   We wanted our stuff to be as good as NFL Films even if it was only high school ball.


Usually the schedule was two games on Friday afternoon.  Shoot the first half of one game, the second half at the other and pray we got two or three touchdowns from each contest.  Then drive back to San Jose.  We’d drop the tapes off with a log and roster and turn around to do it all over again at a pair of evening games, fighting rush hour traffic the whole way. 

Cameraman and good friend Paul Felt prepares to shoot a kick off at Logan High School, Union City, California. November 1996.
©Mark Neuling 2004

Intern Brian Tong, reporter J.D, Preuss and cameraman Mark Willis relax in the edit bay after a show. January 1999.
©Mark Neuling 2004
The goal was to be back at the station by 10 p.m., cut our highlights, work out a rough script with an intern and finally hand it off to a producer for the final goal line plunge. Some how we managed to get final scores for games we’d left at halftime.  The show went live at 11 p.m.  It got real crazed at times.

Friday’s were long days, the over time was good but the camaraderie was better.  Most importantly the impact we made on the community was measurable.
But I left all that behind several years and a couple of jobs ago.  Recently I got a call from the chief photographer of that same little station.  They were gearing up to do another season of high school football.  Their long-standing producer had left for a job with a network affiliate and things were in a bit of disarray.  The chief photographer wanted to know, since I have time to freelance now, if I’d be interested in coming back to shoot for them.  But he was embarrassed to ask me.  Station management was drawing the line at twelve dollars an hour for shooters. 
I want to pose a question to the news directors, sports directors and station managers who set these rates; have you ever really thought what your photographers are worth and how valuable the pictures are that they produce?  These are the people who go into the field, representing your station, with any where from twenty thousand to perhaps a hundred thousand dollars worth of gear.    Most of these men and women have four years of college, some have years of experience.    Aren’t the pictures, sounds, stories and commercials they put on your air worth more than twelve dollars an hour.  And who is it that the public comes into contact with the most?   Usually it’s your photographers. 
Sadly twelve dollars an hour works out to around twenty five thousand dollars a year.  It’s been several years since I last saw an industry average for television photographers, but I’d guess that twelve dollars an hour is around the salary norm now.
As for me, yes I’ve worked for a lot less than twelve dollars an hour, but that was when Ronald Reagan was president.  I know that many young photographers working for small stations are glad to get any kind of living wage and the experience that goes along with it.  And they do it in order to move on to bigger stations in larger markets where the pay and conditions are better.  Sure you’re doing this for your “resume tape;” and I’m all for paying your dues.  But I paid my dues a long time ago.  I no longer get any special thrill from being allowed into any kind of sporting event for free any more. 

Lugging a BETACAM up and down the sidelines in front of a crowd is no longer cool; it’s hard work.  Getting sound after a game, meeting deadlines, editing tape, writing scripts and making dozens of different decisions every night ought to be worth more than twelve bucks an hour.

I admit that I miss shooting sports, particularly football.   But I couldn’t get every Friday off anyway with my current work schedule.  Besides I don’t really need all the headaches that come with the job, especially the twelve dollar an hour kind.  I’m in a position where I can say no to some work.  At least I can for this year; as for next football season, well you never know.

A Mills High School player after a hard hit at Woodside High School, Woodside, California. November 15, 1997.
© Mark Neuling 2004

© Mark Neuling 2004

The opinions expressed are still, solely those of the author.
© Mark Neuling 2004
Email address is now – theneulings@Juno.com


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