Leader Blues

Monday, June 08, 2009

SPORTS >> Backyard Brawl launches televised slate

Leader sports editor

Jim Withrow said he always knew this day was coming. Mark Whatley wasn’t surprised either.

Live televised high school football has arrived in Arkansas. KARK Channel 4 announced on Wednesday morning the launching of Fearless LIVE, a package of 11 live statewide broadcasts of high school football games on sister station KARZ Channel 42.

The inaugural broadcast will be the Backyard Brawl — the annual rivalry game between Jacksonville and Cabot.

“(Cabot) has the traveling trophy now,” said Whatley, Jacksonville’s head coach. “And this just adds to (all the hype). Hopefully, we’ll be ready to play and take advantage of it and get after it. It ought to be an exciting week.”

Though the Jacksonville-Cabot game is slated for a Tuesday night (Sept. 1), the other 10 games will be played on Thursday nights. Kickoff for all 11 broadcasts is 7:30.

Two other Leader area teams will be featured in the package. Sylvan Hills will host Mills on Oct. 1 and Harding Academy will travel to Mayflower on Oct. 15.

“I remember when I was in high school in Fayetteville, they’d put a game on TV every once in a while,” said Withrow, the former Mills coach who will be starting his third year at Sylvan Hills this fall. “I think it came down to economics. Give credit to the guys who are putting up the money. It’s tough to sell and they’re sticking their necks out.”

Former Arkansas Razorback announcer and KARK sports anchor Dave Woodman will do the play-by-play for each of the games and will be joined in the booth by KARK Razorback Nation anchor Aaron Nolan.

“A great deal of work went into this,” Whatley said. “Obviously, they recognize there is a great deal of passion in high school football in Arkansas. And Fearless Friday has come in and given us a chance to showcase the kids and showcase the communities.”

Cabot athletic director Johnny White was mostly positive about the package, but also expressed reservations about the potential economic impact it might have on the schools.

“We initially turned it down,” he said. “We were afraid it might cost us money at the gate, that people might stay at home and watch. We negotiated a little bit and they assured us that wouldn’t be the case.

“But we have to make our money at the gate and if you lose $3,000, that’s $3,000 you have to make up.”

But White also saw the upside, noting that the broadcast gave Cabot an opportunity to showcase its state-of-the-art football facility, with its jumbo screen, artificial turf, brand new field house and top-of-the-line lighting.

“I think it means a lot for the state,” White said. “It’s going to be good for high school athletics. But there are lots of unanswered questions still.”

Whatley said he isn’t too concerned about the effect the television cameras might have on his players. And the Red Devils and Panthers played on a Tuesday last year so that shouldn’t be a factor either, especially given it’s the first week of the season.

“You might have to address a couple of things that are out of the ordinary,” Whatley said of preparations for the game with Cabot. “But you find that once the game kicks off, football players are still football players and fans are still fans. But this should definitely be a good motivator for the kids.”

For Withrow and Sylvan Hills, the story may be a little different. Withrow said if the game was in Week 7 or 8, playing on a Thursday wouldn’t be a factor at all.

“By that point in the season, you’d probably rather play on Thursday anyway,” he said. “But with it being Week 5, it might be a little different. I think we play White Hall the week before and North Little Rock before that.

“We’re going to have a tough little three-game stretch before (the Mills game). And it will be a short week.”

As far as the presence of live television cameras on the sidelines, Withrow doesn’t think that will play much of a role at all.

“Once the game starts, they won’t even think about it,” he said. “To be honest, when you walk out there on a Friday night, there are cameras all over the place anyway.”

Withrow said that originally Sylvan Hills was slated for a Week 3 televised matchup with North Little Rock, but scheduling forced a change to the Mills game. Withrow coached at Mills before coming to Sylvan Hills in 2007.

“I was kind of surprised it wasn’t us and North Pulaski, with the communities being so close together,” he said. “But I think it came down to scheduling. There was some concern about losing the gate for a Thursday night junior high game that (might have to be moved).”

Televised football will also give college football coaches around the state — including Gulf South Conference coaches — an opportunity to scout area talent, giving kids another chance to be seen by prospective recruiters.

“It’s very exciting, getting to play on statewide TV,” Withrow said. “It’s a big deal and I’m excited to be a part of it.”