The history of Student Sports over the last quarter century strongly parallels the emergence of technologies that make up what sports and media are today. From the advent of desktop publishing to the grass-roots experience of high school events and to the global explosion of the internet and cable TV, this is the Student Sports story…
Andy Bark was a self-admittedly undersized, over-achieving receiver at the Air Force Academy and the Falcons were on the road to Atlanta for a battle against Georgia Tech.
As his team’s flight pulled into the Houston airport for a layover, Bark—a blond, tanned surfer from Palos Verdes, Calif.—was surprised to see several of his fellow Cadet players who were native to the Lone Star State practically crawl over the seats when the plane was emptying.
The Texans were making a mad rush to the newsstand to get the newly published Texas Football Magazine when a light bulb went off in Bark’s head.
“If there’s such a passion for football in Texas,” he mused, “maybe I can take the same idea back to California.
Bark would eventually transfer to Cal Berkeley where he played on the Bears’ 1982 and ’83 teams.
There, he met Cal SID Kevin Reneau who would later introduce him to Mark Tennis, a former high school sports newspaper writer. Tennis, along with his uncle Nelson Tennis, was cranking out a weekly newsletter in Stockton, Calif. called Cal-Hi Sports covering athletics at the 1,200 high schools in the Golden State.
In 1986, Bark teamed with the pair and also brought in hometown friend John Prassas to help form what Student Sports is today.
Utilizing the newest advances in desktop publishing technology, they turned the 35-subscriber, copier-printed newsletter into a four-color glossy magazine and within three years the publication renamed Student Sports Magazine appeared on newsstands across the nation.
The content featured and highlighted “Students Who Play Sports” and focused on three editorial-based “R’s:” Recruiting, Ratings and Records.
In the pre-internet days, the Print division was the focal point and Student Sports Magazine would become the first national publication to feature many of America’s best athletes on its cover while they were in high school; familiar names such as Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Tony Gonzalez, Junior Seau, Misty May, Kerri Walsh, Alyson Felix and dozens more.
The publishing arm of SS also included the printing of national football and basketball record books thanks to the tireless research and expertise of Tennis and long-time prep sports historian, Doug Huff.
By 1989, the Torrance, Calif.-based company also became nationally known for its creation of high school combines and 64-team 7-on-7 passing tournaments. By the end of the decade, the football combines would add a training component to become the ever popular Nike Football Training Camps.
Other Nike-sponsored football events followed and continue today including the Nike Football SPARQ Combines, the Elite 11 Quarterback Camps and The Opening.
In 2002, Student Sports acquired the Area Code Baseball Games property, which remains the oldest and most exclusive high school baseball showcase in the nation. Famous alums to pass through the Long Beach Blair Field complex include contemporary All-Stars such as Albert Pujols, CC Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, Clayton Kershaw and both 2012 Rookies of the Year, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
Student Sports would go on to produce other successful events in sports such as basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and softball.
Not coincidentally, these events produced exclusive editorial opportunities and large opportunities also loomed in cable television and on the World Wide Web.
After his playing days were over, Bark was invited to Australia to provide color commentary on Monday Night Football for Network 10 Australia, the first television station developed by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
One of his acquaintances there, David Hill of Fox, acquired Sports Channel and PrimeTicket, would ultimately reach out to Student Sports for high school sports production and programming on Fox Sports Net, including the five-time Emmy winning monthly show Inside Cal-Hi Sports along with Fox Sports Games of the Week in multiple sports.
While this added a profile and new profit center for SS, it was the cross-platform promotional benefits that allowed the company to leverage its knowledge of athletes and become the first premium subscription-based sports website.
As the internet explosion rolled into the sports world, venture capital markets were flush with digital dollars and in 1998 SS entered a deal with internet pioneer Jim Heckman to create the name “Rivals.com” and transfer all data, photos, videos and URLs to the Rivals platform.
Student Sports also promoted its brand and efforts on its own site, StudentSports.com, which spun out to include such sport-specific verticals covering football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball and track/cross country (through the acquisition of DyeStat in 2004).
These verticals existed as premium sites as well as advertiser driven platforms from 1998 to 2008.
SPARQ & ESPN
In 2003, Bark was involved with the leveraging of SS assets and intellectual property to create and co-found the training-focused company SPARQ.
Five years later, SPARQ was sold to Nike and ESPN acquired Student Sports as part of its high school sports launch under the umbrella of ESPN RISE and later ESPN High School, a relationship that lasted four years.
New events were produced in basketball (Under Armour Elite 24) soccer (Nike Premier 50, Manchester City clinics), softball (Under Armour All-American Game, ESPN RISE National Softball Championship) and lacrosse (Warrior 40, Nike Elite Lacrosse Camps).
Events such as the Area Code Games, Elite 11 and The Opening have been broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3 and SS continues to be involved heavily in the high school space.