ESPN Orders High School Makeover Show 'Rise Up' to Series (Exclusive)

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The network has enlisted country star and former high school football player Kenny Chesney to compose the theme song for the franchise.

ESPN has ordered high school makeover show Rise Up to series and the network has enlisted country music star Kenny Chesney to write the theme song for the franchise.

Hosted by ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman and DIY television personality Deanne Bell (PBS’ Design Squad), Rise Up gives needy high schools’ athletic facilities a makeover. The franchise bowed with a backdoor pilot last fall at New Orleans’ McMain Secondary High School. ESPN is currently in production on new installments in Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Wellston, Ohio, while executives hope to expand the series to six yearly installments in 2012.

The series kicks off Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. with Wellston High School.

Chesney – a die-hard University of Tennessee fan who played football and baseball in high school – has worked with ESPN before. He co-directed and produced the documentary The Color Orange, about his childhood idol Condredge Holloway, a University of Tennessee quarterback in the 1970’s and the first African American to start at the position in the Southeast Conference. And last year, Chesney produced The Boys of Fall, a very personal documentary about how high school football shapes young men and their communities. That film was inspired by Chesney’s song of the same name.

Joan Lynch, Rise Up executive producer and ESPN’s vp of content development, describes Chesney’s new song – an acoustic number titled "Rise Up" – as “a call to action.”

It’s the first time Chesney has been asked to compose a song for television, says Lynch. “He said to me, ‘Joan, this is the hardest thing I’ve done.’ And then he watched the [New Orleans episode of Rise Up] and he wrote the song in two hours. I couldn’t believe it when he emailed me the lyrics.”

Rise Up comes at a time when the recession has sapped funding for public education making sports and extracurricular activities particularly vulnerable. ESPN enlists local businesses to donate materials and man-hours so that the renovation project is a community effort. Each hour is bookended by the surprise announcement that the school has been chosen and the final reveal of the shiny new athletic facilities. There will also be plenty of appearances from star athletes and coaches including Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, Ohio University alum and retired NFL running back Eddie George and New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker.

All of the schools are in underserved areas and in dire need of facility upgrades. In Boston, the students at the Dorchester Education Complex – which houses Dorchester Academy and TechBoston – will get a new athletic field and track. They've been using a public field near the school, which is in a high crime area. Seattle’s Ingraham High School will get a new basketball court. The old one, says Lynch, had been “recoated so many times it was like an ice-skating rink. You step on it in sneakers and slide right across it. A JV coach slipped and shattered both kneecaps and tore his ACL.”

Rise Up is a bit of a departure for ESPN, which has branched into documentary with its highly regarded 30 for 30 franchise, but has so far stayed away from what could be categorized as reality television.

“It’s very different from everything else we’ve put on,” says Lynch. “But it works for us because it’s so on-brand. There’s a need in this country for support of athletic programs. So we’re happy to have the opportunity to do it.”

The series presses all the emotional levers. Wellston High School is in southern Ohio, a region hard hit by unemployment after the shuttering of Ford and GM plants. Jim Derrow, who coached boys basketball for 25  years and also served as the district's athletic director, spearheaded the effort to get ESPN to come to Wellston. But Derrow died unexpectedly two weeks before ESPN producers announced that the school had been chosen for Rise Up. He was 52.

"It's because of him that we're there," says Lynch. "This will be part of his legacy."

ESPN’s sales team is busy lining up sponsors after EAS Sports Nutrition dropped out as a presenting sponsor. Powerade is an associate sponsor and the network expects to sign up apparel makers. (Xenith Helmets was a sponsor for the New Orleans show.)

“Apparel companies and equipment companies want to know: are you going to have my product in every episode? Which is a typical request and they should ask that question,” notes Lynch. “But we don’t know exactly what we’re doing in each of the schools. So it becomes a little more complicated. But I’m really hoping that after these air, we get some really big sponsors to come in and say we’re just going to support this in general.”

For ESPN, Rise Up’s public service mandate has already sunk in.

“It’s been such a positive experience for everyone at ESPN,” says Lynch. “I’m thrilled with the fact that when we first pitched it, and now that we’re moving forward with it, there’s never been a discussion about ratings as a sign of success for this show.”