Kevin Westhuis and the River Falls Sports YouTube broadcasters helped donate close to $11,000 to three local nonprofits in December. Photo by Greg Peters
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‘Winner winner chicken dinner!’

RF Sports YouTube channel is conduit for relationships

RIVER FALLS – “Winner winner chicken dinner!” trumpeted River Falls Assistant City Administrator Jason Stroud to his co-workers when he received his $10 gift card to Tarnation Tavern in River Falls this past week.

Stroud won his free “Charlie Cat Hot Chicken” from Tarnation Tavern by watching a River Falls High School girls’ basketball game against Rice Lake days earlier. He was the first correct answer to the halftime trivia question on the River Falls Sports YouTube broadcast.

Stroud and his fourthgrade daughter, Olivia, watch as many Wildcat girls’ basketball games as they can because, says Stroud, “I’ll take every opportunity for Olivia to want to spend time watching with me because one day she probably won’t.”

Stroud’s office desk is about 40 feet away from River Falls Municipal Utilities Director Kevin Westhuis’ desk. Luck of the draw, building relationships is what Westhuis has been doing since he and his wife, Colleen, moved to River Falls from Fort Collins, Co., in March 2013.

Westhuis is a Waupun, Wis., native. The name “Waupun” comes from the Ojibwe word, “waubun,” meaning “the dawn of day.” The state of Wisconsin made a spelling error back in 1839 and Waupun residents must have just figured in their best upper Midwest Charlie Berens impression, “Oh jeez, what the heck, why bother to change it? We got them cows to milk.”

“Why bother” and Kevin Westhuis fit together about as much as manscaping and the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. If there is something to improve River Falls and Westhuis has a passion for it, you can bet your Bucky Badger it will be done. Those artistically painted power boxes around River Falls, those are all Kevin Westhuis. The Norman Rockwell-like Christmas lights on Main Street, yep, that’s Kevin Westhuis, too. He didn’t paint them or hang the lights, but they were his brainchild.

River Falls Municipal Utilities is #1 in the state and #2 in the entire country for customer participation in green energy purchases. Westhuis is asked how they do it at statewide meetings.

“Mike Noreen asks,” said Westhuis. “You would be surprised what a simple ask can accomplish.”

“Kevin is competitive,” said Noreen, the city Conservation and Efficiency Coordinator, “and sports creep into work at the city with fun ‘batting orders’ at weekly meetings.”

“Sports has always been a way Kevin connects with people and forms relationships,” said his wife of 33 years, Colleen. “That’s what happened when we moved here, too.”

Westhuis had been live-video-streaming his son’s (Kyle) high school baseball games in Fort Collins back in the dial-up internet days. Kyle’s Rocky Mountain High won four straight Colorado state baseball titles.

“Next thing I know I was doing stuff for all four high schools in Fort Collins like six days a week,” said Westhuis. “It just took off.”

“I nicknamed him Howard when I first met him,” said Colleen, referring to longtime ABC Sports broadcaster, Howard Cosell.

Colleen Westhuis grew up in Chicago and worked as an usher at Chicago Cubs and White Sox games during the summer in high school and she went to college in Michigan. She and Kevin met when he was visiting a friend.

“His pick-up line to me was ‘I play hockey,’” said Colleen, and she sarcastically rolled her eyes and replied, “I’m impressed.”

And she walked away. Westhuis has the persistency of a stalagmite and it not only won Colleen over but it’s also the reason his volunteer-run River Falls Sports YouTube broadcasts have almost a million views in the last four years.

“My why is two things,” said Westhuis. “It’s fun and it’s a conduit for relationships. It’s about planting seeds everywhere.”

Westhuis is the “Wiley Appleseed” of Wildcat Athletics and the branches are becoming stronger by the day.

The River Falls Sports YouTube play-off football broadcast against West De Pere this fall had close to 12,500 views. Now, that’s not just 12,500 people, that’s just how many devices have clicked on the link for that game. The Wildcat regional final girls’ volleyball game against Chippewa Falls in late October had close to 6,000 views. Not only are more and more people watching the games on-line in droves, the actual people in seats at the games have been more.

“A snowy night might keep some people at home watching,” said Westhuis. “But all the broadcasts do is create awareness. The viewer feels like they were a part of it even though they weren’t there and it makes them want to go to a game now because they’re aware of it and invested.”

River Falls Sports You-Tube is 100% non-profit and every person helping out is a volunteer.

“Parents would come up to me and ask why their kid’s sport wasn’t broadcasted and others were,” said Westhuis. “I told them, I’ll show you how to run the equipment and you can do it.”

There are currently 15 sports being broadcast each school year. There were over 30,000 views just this past month with six in-season sports and not too many games during the holidays.

First National Bank of River Falls donated $6,000 to purchase new equipment. Did the bank make a good investment in their community? It’s about a penny per view and each view averages almost 20 minutes in length. In advertising return on investment lingo, that’s like turning water into wine.

Westhuis is adamant about keeping it volunteer, adding more students, and keeping the money out of it.

“Money messes everything up,” said Westhuis. “We’re here to celebrate high school sports and these kids. It can be a working laboratory for these kids down the road. Something is going to grow out of it.”

Something already has. One seed sprouting the last two years is the non-profit River Falls Sports YouTube team requesting donations from viewers for their “Man-Up Movement” to donate to local non-profits in River Falls.

The American Legion, the Assistance Resource Center, and the River Falls Community Food Pantry each received $3,600 this month, all donations from viewers spear-headed by Mike Kealy and Westhuis.

“That donation is multiplied by seven when we get cash because the food bank is so cheap,” said River Falls Community Food Pantry Executive Director Candice Anderson. “It was very cool. We’ve had two record-breaking months within the last six months (people needing food). Everybody’s budgets got stretched pretty thin. It definitely helped.”

The River Falls Sports broadcasters have been responsible for donating over $30,000 to local non-profits over the past three years.

“It’s great because it helps get the word out to other folks that might not have heard of us,” said Our Neighbor’s Place Executive Director Shelly Smith. “That opportunity to be in front of that many people is so incredibly valuable.”

Westhuis believes the reason people give so easily is because they are appreciative of the free service of bringing Wildcat sports to their living rooms, but he is human and sometimes the responsibilities of answering phone calls to fix technical problems and driving to La Crosse on a Tuesday night can take its toll.

“It happened last week,” said Westhuis. “Sometimes the fire dwindles down to a couple embers.”

Insert River Falls Activities Director David Crail to fan the flame. Westhuis heard the news for the first time during the interview that Crail had recently nominated him for the statewide WIAA Spirit of Sport Award.

“We talk to our athletes about leading with character and service, giving of oneself, acting with humility, and Kevin embodies all of those traits,” said Crail. “It’s truly great to see how it has grown and how many continue to give of themselves in support of high school athletics.”

“That reignited my fire,” said Westhuis. “A ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”

Dee Campbell, the grandmother of River Falls Boys’ Basketball Coach Zac Campbell and 2022 senior hoops star Ethan Campbell, died from cancer last March. Her health had taken a turn for the worse and she was unable to make it to the games.

“That iPad became her lifeline and a connection for her to be able to watch games,” said Dee’s son and Ethan’s father, Gary Campbell. “She always commented how they called Ethan ‘The Soup Can.’ She never met Kevin, but she always commented how fun it was to listen to him.”

Dee Campbell knew her time on Earth was coming to a close and she filled out an informational card to help with her obituary in the newspaper. The card asked about her club involvement and the 87-year-old mother of nine wrote, “Hammond Red Hats Women’s Group, Joy Circle at Peace Lutheran Church, and River Falls Basketball U-Tube Club.”

Pretending to have something in his eye, Westhuis said, “Life is like a song. The goal isn’t about getting to the end; it’s about enjoying every note.”

A conduit for relationships, one person at a time. Winner winner chicken dinner.

January 3, 2023