Friday night lights are blazing again, but those bulbs of autumn seem downright quaint amid a blitz of next-gen, gridiron gadgets — from $700,000 scoreboards to tablets on sidelines to drones hovering above the hand-offs.
For high school teams from Louisiana to New York, the football hit has become a tech crunch, and a sport for teen boys has ballooned, by one estimate, into a $3 billion investment nationally — spending partly fueled by the leap in game-deployed gizmos.
Even as many schools financially sputter, some districts are buying often-expensive football toys.
In Texas, the El Paso Independent School District dipped nearly $10 million into its reserve fund and cut 172 teaching positions in June. This fall, that district is paying $10,000 for an online, video-compilation subscription called Hudl, allowing coaches and players at 10 local high schools to film, edit and add music to replays of scoring runs and catches — and to view opponents’ Hudl highlights.
“It was determined that this is valuable and necessary product for our programs,” district spokesperson Vanessa Monsisvais wrote in an email to NBC News.
Texas prep football — inspiration for the best-selling book, film and TV show “Friday Night Lights” — is revered in the Lone Star State. But the head of El Paso’s teachers said the district’s expenditure shows “our priorities are a little skewed,” especially with some schools’ computers outdated and many teachers forced to purchase classroom supplies out of pocket.
“I’m a little concerned. Football should actually be paying for itself. But I go to a lot of games and, unfortunately, you don’t see packed stadiums. Sometimes, you can count on your hand the number of people there,” said Norma De La Rosa, president of the El Paso Teachers Association. “I understand the importance of athletics. But there can be better ways to spend that money. The emphasis has to be on academics."
De La Rosa, an English teacher, said she's among those teachers spending their money on pencils, paper and composition books — up to $1,000 annually for her. "A lot of teachers sacrifice rather than fight with administration, who tells them: ‘We don’t have the money.’ But we’re spending this amount for football technology?”
"Nothing says education like a jumbotron!"
Another football-tech purchase has raised parental ire in the same El Paso district. Franklin High School recently bought a $125,000 Jumbotron football scoreboard — a 12-foot-by-16-foot screen that will show interviews and game action.
A private boosters club at Franklin High paid for the Jumbotron. Still, some locals criticized the purchase on Facebook, contending the money could have been used “to fix the broken down schools” and complaining: “nothing says education like a jumbotron!”
At Louisiana’s West Monroe High School, an even bigger scoreboard purchase in July — $742,000 — spurred initial criticism. That screen will be 48 feet wide and 27 feet tall, offer sound and show replays. The school district will cover the initial cost but more than two-thirds of the price is expected ultimately to be reimbursed through sign-sponsorship agreements with Chick-fil-A and local businesses.
“When I first heard about it, I was a little bit concerned. That seemed like an awful lot of money for a scoreboard,” said Robert Freeman, the band director at West Monroe High. “Then, when I talked to the coach and learned how they were financing this, I felt better about it.
“There will always be a contingent of people who are against it because it just doesn’t play well in the press,” Freeman said. “But our football team is the only revenue generator — it’s sustaining the other sports. People line up here at 4 in the morning to buy season tickets. In a town of 15,000, there’re upwards of 10,000 people in the stands every Friday night. The scoreboard is going to be a net-revenue generator once it’s paid off in five years.”
Replay-spewing scoreboards aren’t new technology so much as a major upgrade in the high-school game experience.
“I don’t think it’s long before we see a lot of schools flying the drone around.”
But in the skies above some of those Friday night contests, there is something new, and it's buzzing.
In July, Montgomery Bell Academy, a private, all-boys high school in Nashville, Tennessee, paid $1,300 for a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ — a camera-mounted “quad copter” operated by the school’s technology director, Marc Ardisson.
At home games, after seeking approval from the opposing coach and the officials, Ardisson flies the drone behind the line of scrimmage about 40 feet above the ground, following scampering running backs, returners and receivers. For now, Ardisson’s drone videos are packaged only for school assemblies or publication by the local newspaper — not used by the football team, he said.
“We like to sell our school. If we get some great footage from a football game with the drone, we can incorporate it into a video we show prospective parents,”Ardisson said.
“I have received calls from other football coaches around the country and they are interested in incorporating it into their programs. It does provide them with a great, rare shot,” he added. “I don’t think it’s long before we see a lot of schools flying the drone around.”
That futuristic image doesn’t exactly soothe Angela Lumpkin, chairwoman of the sports management department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. By her estimate, American high schools collectively invest more than $3 billion annually in football.
The money doesn’t concern Lumpkin as much as how that fresh tech is revving “an overemphasis on winning.”
“As professional sports got bigger and collegiate sports got bigger and football got bigger, the model for the high schools really became more commercial,” Lumpkin said. “It becomes all about winning, and that’s where the technology piece enters. In essence: 'How can I get an advantage over my opponent?'
“When a high school student has to learn all 700 football plays on his iPad because you have to win, we’re out of balance.”