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ESPN To Air 'Rise' Doc; Could Become Series

ESPN is giving a needy school's athletic facility a makeover in a new primetime documentary set to bow on the flagship channel in September.

An outgrowth of ESPN Rise, the sports behemoth's high school brand, Rise Up: New Orleans is being shot at New Orleans' Eleanor McMain Secondary School and is set to bow Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., one day after the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints Monday Night Football matchup against the San Francisco 49rs.

The game will provide a big promotional platform for Rise Up. And while, ESPN executives have yet to commit to future installments, they are hopeful that the hour-long documentary will become a first of its kind franchise for ESPN Rise, which already includes ESPN Rise magazine, an online destination and the annual ESPN Rise Games at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando.

"The hope is that by going in and spotlighting this school, we'll have the opportunity to do this in other communities as well," says Mitch Wright, the documentary's executive producer.

Rise Up: New Orleans also follows on the heels of the inaugural ESPN RiseHigh School Kickoff, which will air on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN2 Aug. 27-29, and provide a targeted promotional opportunity for Rise Up.

ESPN chose McMain in consultation with the New Orleans Saints and the team will have a starring role in Rise Up. The school's football team spent time training at the Saints' state-of-the-art facility with the team's head strength and conditioning coach Dan Dalrymple. Saints players including quarterback Drew Brees, a co-chair on the President's Council on Fitness Sports and Nutrition, also worked with the students. 

The goal of the program, says Glenn Rosenbloom, vp, ESPN Rise, is two-fold: to get the community involved in the rehabilitation project and to instruct high school athletes and coaches on safe and effective training practices, a core tenet of the ESPN Rise initiative.

"It was developed with the ESPN Rise mission as its inspiration," says Rosenbloom.

SportsCenter anchor and New Orleans native Stan Verrett will host the hour. 

McMain, which is in Orleans Parish, was the first school to re-open after Hurricane Katrina. But the school's athletic facilities are woefully inadequate. 

"We went on a tour in the fitness room, if you want to call it that," says Wright. "There were just a few tattered weight benches and a random set of weights. But a good number of the football team was in there. They need to keep up with the schools that have better training facilities and their own practice fields, so they have to put in the work. They weren't making excuses; they were just doing their best." 

The space being used for the boys and girls locker rooms had no lockers. The boys' area did not even have a working toilet. There was no running water, so no showers. But there was water leaking from the ceiling, which coupled with poor ventilation, raised concerns about staph infection. 

The idea for the show came from two members of the ESPN marketing department, Andrea Valachovic and Noelle Crozier. But Rise Up is part of a wider trend of feel-good reality TV pioneered by ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and that has gathered momentum during the recession ravaged economy.

Last February, CBS bowed Undercover Boss to record ratings after Super Bowl XLIV. In October, NBC will soon debut School Pride, which enlists volunteers from the community to pitch in and spruce up high schools in need including Communications & Media Arts high school in Detroit and Lanier Elementary in Baton Rouge. This fall, ABC will resurrect the reality show Secret Millionaire, which has wealthy donors living incognito in poor communities with the ultimate goal of giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy recipients. 

ESPN has tailored the charitable makeover show to their sports brand at a time when many public school systems are reeling from a shrinking tax base, a byproduct of widespread unemployment.

"There are school districts that are being cut back to the extent that many student athletes no longer have teams to play on," says Rosenbloom. "We all know that the benefits of participating in high school sports are enormous. Many of the lessons they learn, on and off the field, last a lifetime. So it's a tragedy."

Corporate sponsorship is significant in such makeover shows where manufacturers donate supplies in exchange for the halo effect of positive product placement. Sears is a major sponsor of Home Edition; Home Depot is donating building supplies to School Pride. The bulk of Rise Up's donors are local including Moses Engineers, Woodward Design and Build and St. Martin Brown & Associates, the official architecture firm of the New Orleans Saints, which has also done charitable work in earthquake ravaged Haiti. But ESPN has secured uniforms from Nike, football helmets from Xenith and nautilus equipment from Med-Fit.

Like Home Edition, the final reveal will be a shiny new home, in this case for McMain's student athletes. And the story will continue on with updates about the school's athletes. 

"We were really impressed by the attitude of these kids and their coaches to make do and not make excuses," says Wright. "But we really want to go in and give them something. And the cool thing is they saw the Saints facility and just how state-of-the art that was. And we want to surprise these kids and their coaches by giving them something similar."