- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

It had to happen sooner or later.

After Kwame Brown and LeBron James became the first two high school players to be picked No.1 overall in the NBA Draft, prep basketball is certifiably big-time now. And nowhere is that coronation clearer than in High School Hoops, a new mainstream glossy preview magazine jointly produced by the Sporting News and School Sports, a Boston-based publisher of a prep sports monthly distributed to more than 3,000 high schools.

High school sports and commercialism have become increasingly synonymous in recent years. Dozens of major tournaments and high school stadiums have commercial sponsorship, most notably the McDonald’s All-American Game. ESPN has dabbled in airing high school games, primarily with James’ team last year in Akron, Ohio.

USA Today has ranked top prep football and basketball teams around the country for years, though it rarely positions high school sports on the front of its sports section. Street & Smith’s often runs a page or two on high schools in the back of its college preview annuals for football and basketball. Shoe deals with Nike or Adidas are common at major prep programs.

High School Hoops completes the transformation. The magazine, the first of its kind devoted to nationwide prep basketball, looks like any of myriad pro and college preview magazines piling up on newsstands. Prep teams are ranked, both nationally and by region, as are individual players. Several top players are the subjects of long features. Reebok, Nike, Champion, Champs Sports, New Balance, Acclaim and Nestle are among the big-name corporate advertisers.

And by aligning with a known national entity such as the Sporting News, School Sports, which led the editorial production of High School Hoops, will gain access to a previously unseen mass market. The initial circulation guaranteed to advertisers is 100,000, half of which is targeted to come from newsstands.

The magazine also heralds a new era for sports publishing, one in which the national, stand-alone treatment of high school athletics is seen as commercially viable for a general sports audience rather than just parents, coaches, recruiters, basketball junkies and other tightly connected parties.

“This is a real indicator in the level of fan interest in high school sports now,” said James Kaufman, School Sports president and chief executive. “Particularly since LeBron, there’s just been an explosion of interest in this level of play, and it’s really become part of the mainstream.”

The Sporting News has dabbled in high school sports before, publishing football preview volumes the last two years, including an initial volume focusing solely on college recruiting.

But the new basketball issue, thanks largely to LeBron’s mega celebrity and the search for his heir apparent, is a much more polished and anticipated affair. And already in the works is an expanded preview next fall for high school football and potentially a similar magazine for baseball.

“Our passionate fans are interested in all levels of sports,” said Kathy Kinkeade, Sporting News vice president of operations. “The timing is right to make more of an investment in this, and we think there’s a real market here.”

Preview magazines such as High School Sports have a choppy financial history, particularly those covering pro leagues, and sometimes exist more to establish brand recognition and keep up with competing publishers. But Kinkeade said a profit is expected with the new high school annual.

More pressing are the inevitable questions on whether the heightened national media interest in prep sports is exploitive. While not ranking 12-year-old players like some insider tip sheets, High School Sports does rank 16-year-old juniors who in many cases have nowhere near the size or ability they will as adults — or even in two years when they graduate.

Kaufman said the magazine’s circulation in high schools, and in turn a fair chunk of its financial viability, depends on the approval of gatekeepers such as principals and athletic directors, creating a safety mechanism for the athletes involved.

The more simplistic reality, however, is that after the Hummer, designer clothes and global fame achieved and obtained by LeBron before graduating high school, imitators are inevitable. And so, too, are publications to chronicle the latest phenoms, regardless of any outcry from concerned parties.

“We’re not doing this for exploitation. We think we have a great sensitivity about this,” Kaufman said. “But the bottom line is, the fan interest is there and there are plenty of other sports where it’s accepted for kids to compete and thrive, such as gymnastics and tennis. Now that is extending to the major team sports.”

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