ESPN2 shows tonight’s Cretin-Stillwater game, part of a push to showcase future college stars.
Sports giant ESPN is broadcasting the game live, breaking new ground for the network in the state as it seeks to whet the appetite of college football viewers increasingly interested in top high school recruits.
It’s one of 26 high school games that ESPN2 plans to air this fall but the only one in Minnesota. The player most responsible for attracting the network’s interest is junior Jashon Cornell, a 16-year-old defensive end for Cretin-Derham Hall who is rated by ESPN as the nation’s top high school football recruit in his class.
“With recruiting and the Internet, people know who these kids are, and this is a chance to show them,” said Dan Margulis, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions. “Having [Cornell] definitely is a hook for doing the broadcast.”
In addition to each school receiving $1,000 for participating, dozens of teenagers on both teams will get their first and perhaps only chance to play football on national TV. ESPN2 is widely available with most Twin Cities cable television packages.
The prospect of playing before a national audience has clearly found its way into players’ heads at practice this week.
“Get your work in,” bellowed Ray Hitchcock, Cretin-Derham Hall offensive line coach and an NFL veteran. “You don’t want to be the guy bending over tired on national television.”
ESPN chatter at Stillwater is more subdued by design, Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. While his players are pumped, “they know the only way that they are really going to enjoy it or remember it is if they come out and play their best game,” he said.
The network’s growing interest in high school football follows its initial foray into basketball more than a decade ago. Chicago-based Paragon Marketing’s promotion of the 2002 broadcast of a game featuring then-prep phenom LeBron James became ESPN2’s highest rated regularly scheduled program.
Basketball is expected to bring ESPN back to Minnesota this winter. The network has scouted the Apple Valley high school gym for a telecast of a Dec. 12 game involving prized point guard Tyus Jones.
College broadcast quality
Paragon has partnered with ESPN since 2002 to broadcast 166 football games featuring many of the nation’s top teams and players.
One football game was aired in 2003. That grew to 13 in 2006 with the launch of ESPNU. In 2010, 24 games were shown nationally, including 13 the week before college football began.
The 26 games this season falls into the network’s “sweet spot” of 25 to 30 games per season, Margulis said.
“It’s the right number of games for us for a lot of different reasons,” he said, listing programing space, viewer interest and production costs among the chief factors. A crew of 40 puts on the high school games at college broadcast-level quality.
“Our mission is to serve the college sports fan,” Margulis said. “And the high school sports do that. It’s by no means a moneymaker. ”
By drawing “nominal” ratings compared with a college football broadcast, said Rashid Ghazi, a partner/owner at Paragon, “we are able to cover our expenses but it’s a challenge to secure sponsors.”