The coaches arrive with generators, extension cords and camera rigs, then divide and conquer. One takes the press box and installs a camera and wireless router. Another raises a camera like a pirate flag behind the end zone.

Sideline replay is allowed in high school football to a degree more advanced than what’s legal in college or the NFL, so throughout the country, coaches and players can be seen jabbing their fingers at tablets, smartphones and TVs, breaking down film from a play that happened seconds earlier.

Researchers call this era of high school football “a technological arms race” over who has the newest gadget, and the sideline replay technology is opening a wider gulf between scholastic sports’ resource-rich programs and those struggling to get by.

“It’s frustrating,” said John Lush, coach of Lackey High in Indian Head. Lush said his team couldn’t afford the sideline replay system this season, but half the teams in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference use it.

“One of the reasons you like playing at home is because you feel like you have an advantage,” he said. “Now it feels like a disadvantage at your own place. But at the end of the day, if you’ve got athletic and coachable kids and you’ve got them ready, regardless of what technology you have, you can win a game.”

But with each new piece of electronics on the sideline, players and coaches can quickly solve pet peeves, said Ann Pegoraro, director of the Institute for Sport Marketing at Laurentian University in Greater Sudbury, Ontario. Those fixes add up and can mean games won and games lost.

Stone Bridge teacher and football volunteer David Madgwick sets up the end zone camera before the Bulldogs’ game. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Stone Bridge’s end zone camera is ready to transmit video to coaches in the booth and on the sideline during the Bulldogs’ Oct. 28 game at Potomac Falls. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Westfield High in Chantilly, the defending Virginia 6A state champion, uses Hudl Sideline, an application that syncs live game film across devices. 

One tablet gets plugged into a 51-inch sideline television monitor. Another stays in the press box. Three coaches follow along with their own devices.

After each series, coaches gather to discuss adjustments, then break down film with the offense or defense in front of the TV.

“I don’t do well with the unknown,” Westfield defensive coordinator Mike Giancola said. “I want to know right now. I can’t wait to figure it out after they score.”

The Bulldogs fell behind early in an October game against Robinson; the Rams had run a play that Westfield hadn’t seen on film. Using the replay system, Giancola realigned his defense to adjust. 

Westfield won, 29-28.

“That’s why we won,” linebacker Kevin Petrillo said of the in-game adjustment.

The price of success

Systems like these — such as Hudl, Echo1612 or SkyCoach, used by defending Virginia 5A state finalist Stone Bridge — cost between $500 and $3,400. They connect cameras used to collect game film with a network that feeds the video to connected devices, such as tablets or smartphones. A coach in the press box tags each play in real time and uploads the clip to the network. 

Plays are available about four seconds after they’re tagged, quick enough to run a no-huddle offense and still see instant replays. NFL and college teams can use tablets to view still photographs but not live video. Previously, teams printed out photos for in-game scouting. 

The National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body of public high school football, legalized sideline replay in 2013 and imposed barely any limitations on its use.

Teams all over the country had started using similar systems to watch film in the locker room at halftime, said Tom Dolan, the assistant director for compliance at the Virginia High School League, the state’s scholastic sports governing body. It was only a matter of time before they wanted to bring it to the sideline or the field.

“It became something where the rules committees said, ‘We’re not going to be able to stop this train, so let’s get out in front of it and control it,’ ” Dolan said. 

West Potomac assistant coach Justin Gaudenzi, center, right, holds an iPad to control replays on a large flat screen TV in the bench area while conversing with Wolverines defensive back Marquis Davin, center, during the team’s first-round playoff game against T.C. Williams. Coaches can now display replays within seconds, allowing their teams to adjust on the fly. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Players and coaches are allowed to use the technology at any time on the sideline. During breaks in play, they may use it on the field within nine yards of the sideline.

Teams may use as many devices as they want, and they may film from whatever angles they want. 

If one team has a sideline replay system and its opponent does not, it may continue to use it, a break from football’s rules regulating radio communication. If one team’s radio headsets are not working during a game or if it elects not to use a radio system, its opponent is not allowed to use radio communication either. 

The federation’s ruling has created a widening gap between wealthier football programs that can afford the expense of purchasing the system and the time to set it up and schools that simply don’t have the extra time or money.

“The ‘haves’ are going to have a great system. The ‘have-nots,’ the people struggling with budgets, won’t,” Dolan said. “It doesn’t surprise me. Do I like it? Not necessarily. But I’ve been on those rules committees [in the past] and in those meetings where you see something coming and you’re not going to stop it.”

“The way that technology enters into [high school sports] is almost entirely based on the financial wherewithal of the individual schools,” said Galen Clavio, a professor of sports media at Indiana University. “That’s problematic if you think everyone going into the competition has the same thing.”

Instead a patchwork has emerged of how teams have elected to spend resources on the technology and how to use it. 

Feeling connected

The Prince George’s County Football Coaches Association purchased Hudl Sideline for its 23 member schools, Suitland High Coach Ed Shields said. Only 12 started using the program because of high equipment costs and annual payments.  

The county’s schools didn’t have enough money on their own to purchase the gear and software, but the coaches association, which also puts on an all-star game and skills combine each year, had enough in its coffers from fundraisers and membership dues to help out.

“It’s new technology, so we need to find a way to get used to it,” Shields said. 

Suitland coaches review film between series, but they don’t share the tape with players. Coaches use smartphones to watch the film instead of tablets, and it would be too difficult for an entire team unit to pass around a phone to see, they said.

Quince Orchard High uses a single camera but has four tablets on the sideline and a 36-inch TV monitor for players to watch film. 

“We treat it just like a sideline classroom,” Coach John Kelley said. “Our kids come off the field, and we’re able to give them instant feedback.” 

And then there are teams like Lackey that don’t use the systems, at least not yet. Lush, whose Chargers fell to top-seeded Patuxent — which uses Hudl Sideline — on Friday in a Maryland 2A South region semifinal, wants to raise money for an end zone camera rig and top-flight application suite next year. His assistant coaches keep asking for it, and he said he is sick of hearing somebody else’s generator hum on his home field.