MYRTLE BEACH | These days college coaches aren’t the only people fighting for the services of the nation’s elite high school football players.
Within the last decade a new version of sports entertainment has become big business. When the U.S. Army All-American Bowl was first played in 2000, it was the only mainstream, national all-star event. It took eight years for a legitimate competitor to emerge, the Under Armour All-America game.
Now two other all-star events, both based on the South Carolina coast, are trying to gain national legitimacy in the marketplace. Both the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl (Myrtle Beach, 4 p.m.) and NUC All-World Gridiron Classic (Charleston, 6 p.m.) will be played Friday.
The All-American Bowl is in its fifth season overall and third on the Grand Strand. Despite its history, the game has yet to gain national acclaim or challenge the two biggest events on the all-star circuit. The All-World Gridiron Classic is in its inaugural year.
Both events have attracted a talented field of players headed to many of the nation’s elite college powers. This has been the case for the All-American Bowl, which has alumni such as Cam Newton, Dez Bryant and Rolando McClain, since its inception, but the event was typically taking players after the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and All-America game finalized their rosters.
“We’ve got as good a players playing in this game as the Under Armour game or the Army game,” said Artie Gigantino of Offense-Defense Sports, a Myrtle Beach-based company that hosts summer football camps and organizes the all-star game. “We worked very hard this year to recruit players instead of just inviting them. We’re not taking a backseat anymore.
“We’ve tried to bring a [coaching] mentality to this thing. We’ve had to reorganize ourselves in how we recruit players. And we have. We’ve got seven guys going to Ohio State. Five going to Texas. Five going to Notre Dame.”
Gigantino and Co. targeted players bound for South Carolina. Three future Gamecocks (Mike Matulis pulled out with an injury) and three others who are considering USC will play in the game. The All-World Gridiron Classic features three USC commitments.
It doesn’t seem to matter as much to Offense-Defense officials if the game makes money or attracts large crowds (attendance has historically been low). The company uses the game as a marketing arm for its summer camps, which are held throughout the country.
However, Gigantino, a former college and NFL coach, isn’t happy playing second-fiddle to anybody and would like for his event to gain traction nationally. But his event doesn’t have a marquee sponsor or a major TV contract like the two bigger games.
“We’ve stood toe-to-toe with Army and with Under Armour,” Gigantino said. “We’ve hoping next year to get this [game] on network TV, maybe CBS or Fox. We pay for everything. We need a Reebok or a Nike to make this the Nike Offense-Defense game. We foot the bill now, but we’re working on it.”
Gigantino had attempted to work out a TV contract with Versus, but the deal fell through late in negotiations. This year’s game, which is being played at Myrtle Beach’s Doug Shaw Stadium, moves from Fox College Sports to Comcast, which reaches a much smaller audience than NBC (U.S. Army game) and ESPN (Under Armour game).
The All-World Gridiron Classic, which will be played at The Citadel, will be televised on Fox College Sports. The event is owned by National Underclassmen Combines, which hosts scouting and testing events for freshmen, sophomores and juniors throughout the nation during the offseason.
Since NUC sees many of the nation’s best players develop over the course of their careers, CEO David Schuman believed a national all-star game would be a natural extension of the company’s operations.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to bring in some kids we’ve developed long-term relationships with,” said Schuman, who would like to continue playing the event in Charleston. “We’ve also brought in some kids that weren’t familiar with us. We believe it’s continued to enhance the football atmosphere we’ve developed in the combines.”
Still, Schuman wants to find a significant niche in the all-star marketplace as well. His event has landed a number of high-caliber players, though the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl appears to have the most BCS-bound players behind the two more entrenched events.
Scout.com recruiting analyst Miller Safrit believes there is room for four national all-star games to flourish.
“The big two get the best players and get the first invites out,” he said. “But when you’re talking about 2,500 kids around the country that will sign Division I scholarships, the drop off is probably not as much as the [recruiting rankings] would indicate. These are still very high quality, BCS and Division I players.
“I think it’s longevity. You also have to understand how much money Under Armour and the U.S. Army have put into marketing their games. It’s tough to do, but if you’d have asked me the same question five years ago about Under Armour when they were going up against the Army game, which was the only game in town, it would have been [tough to imagine its growth].”