Mark Packer has covered high school football for years in East Tennessee. But Packer felt something was missing from the Knoxville area's high school coverage.
"High school football has been broadcast on television for six or seven years on Friday nights on Comcast," the Knoxville sportscaster said. "But it kind of came to my attention that half of the market isn't even seeing those games."
On a whim, Packer decided to do something about it. He yearned to provide a stage where the area's best high school games could be seen across East Tennessee. Partnering with State Farm Insurance, Packer launched State Farm Rivalry Thursdays for the upcoming high school football season to highlight the Knoxville area's best game of each week.
"The concept was to have the games on, where people in the entire market could see the games," Packer said. "And the second part is to move the games to Thursday nights, that way nobody else is playing that night. It gives us a chance to kind of be the Monday Night Football for the high school kids. It's their chance to be in the limelight and have the time of their life."
Bringing the passion of high school football to more households in East Tennessee was at the center of Packer's plan. So he enlisted the support of his production company, Pack-Man Productions, to televise the Rivalry Thursday matchups on My VLT-2. My VLT-2 would broadcast games on several different cable and satellite carriers across the East Tennessee region, and that's what mattered the most to Packer.
"My whole concept of this thing is that there is nothing more community than high school athletics," Packer said. "There's nothing that more people take more pride in than their community and their high school."
So Packer pitched the idea to local high school coaches, and they liked what they heard. Area powerhouses such as Maryville, Catholic, and Alcoa quickly jumped on board hoping to get a taste of the action. Coaches savored the idea of extra exposure for their programs. Plus, a primetime rivalry game is hard to pass up. These coaches are competitive.
"It's a big game," said Maryville High School head coach George Quarles, whose Rebels have dates with both Oak Ridge and Catholic on Rivalry Thursdays. "I compare it to Monday Night Football. You're the one game that night. It's just a chance to really showcase our teams. Your kids are going to get excited about playing those types of games."
"When I was in high school, they started playing some games on Thursday nights, and the only games played on a Thursday night were big rivalry games, and the stadiums were absolutely packed," recalled Stanton Stevens, the former state champion head coach at Austin East High School who will call Rivalry Thursday games with Packer. "I think when you isolate a game like Maryville-Oak Ridge on Thursday nights, not only do you get your own fans but you get other fans who have interest in the game as well."
What's in store for these Thursday night games? Think big. Really big. These aren't your usual high school productions; Rivalry Thursdays want the feel of a Monday Night primetime gridiron battle. Seven broadcast cameras and a 30-foot long-arm camera will capture the action, while a 15-foot aerial blimp complete with attached video camera will provide aerial visuals throughout each game.
"The blimp has never been done before," Packer said. "It will provide aerial shots so we can see the plays and the action from above."
The opportunity to perform on a big stage has Knoxville coaches licking their chops. "I think it's a great concept," West coach Scott Cummings said. "It is a little bit exciting with the large-scale production. It makes it more appealing because everyone can focus on one game when no one else is playing."
"It's great exposure," Farragut coach Eddie Courtney said. "Everybody gets to see your kids. They're going to make it a great environment, and that's why we bought into it."
On top of everything else, the games will stream live on RivalryThursday.com so the occasional out-of-market fan can still get a football fix. Even distant relatives would be able to see their youngsters shine in the spotlight.
"Grandparents can watch little Davey play ball, as well as Susie in the band at halftime," Packer said. "I look back and remember my high school days and who we played and who we lost to, and I want these kids to look back and have the same memories. That's at the core of my heart."
State Farm Rivalry Thursdays kick off August 20 when Oneida takes on Gatlinburg-Pittman.