Star defensive end Jashon Cornell, center, knows the big stage of ESPN coverage also means big pressure. ESPN has rated Cornell as the top recruit among all high school juniors. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune photo)
A big, new player will be on the field Friday night when Stillwater and Cretin-Derham Hall kick off their Suburban East Conference football game in St. Paul.
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.”
ESPN’s high school football broadcast hit a low point in 2010. Coaches at two California high schools expressed their frustrations to the Sacramento Bee about everything from players getting pulled out of class for interviews to mandates on which brand of water coolers and jugs must be displayed on the sidelines.
Minnetonka football coach Dave Nelson participated in an ESPN3-aired game at Arrowhead (Wis.) last season. He said Gatorade, one of Paragon’s national sponsors, provided coolers and water bottles that had to be used during the game. The teams were allowed to keep the items.
Margulis blamed the problems in California on a breakdown in communication and said the network learned when “to be big where it’s appropriate and to be small where it’s intrusive.”
With no beverage sponsorship this season, there are no ESPN mandates on water jugs at Friday’s game at the University of St. Thomas, where Cretin-Derham Hall plays its home games.
In advance of the game, both schools were asked to submit school background, player bios and photographs. ESPN staff talked to coaches about players to watch and other game information. No player was pulled from class for an interview.
Showcasing teen athletes
For Cornell, the nation’s No. 1 rated recruit hailing from a non-football hotbed, national television means his successes and failures are magnified.
“We’re cognizant that they are 16, 17, 18 years old,” Margulis said. “We have to be respectful as storytellers. More often than not we’ve done it the right way. We try to identify these kids have potential; they haven’t done anything yet.”
Cornell, an explosive 6-foot-3, 245-pound defensive end, has 13 tackles and five sacks in two games this season. Cornell is excited to have teammates recognized but understands he will held to a different standard.
“The bad thing about it is if you mess up on one play, everybody on national TV is going to judge you like, ‘He’s No. 1?’ ” said Cornell, who has scholarship offers from 22 colleges, including Minnesota.
Cretin-Derham Hall coach Mike Scanlan is critical of Cornell’s status, calling it “ridiculous” to “identify one person as this or that.” But Scanlan said it’s “hard not to love” the lure of playing on an ESPN station.
“It’s hard to say, ‘We have to keep perspective,’ ” Scanlan said. “Come on, let’s enjoy it because you’re never going to get another opportunity to do this.”
Football games on ESPN typically help “gate receipts pop a little bit because of the added excitement in the school community,” Ghazi said. O’Shaughnessy Stadium holds about 4,000 fans. Friday is also Cretin-Derham Hall’s homecoming game.
“It’s a big, exciting moment because 99 percent of these kids aren’t going to be on national television again,” Margulis said. “It’s their moment, and we try to treat it with respect.”