On 20th anniversary, how Nike's The Opening helped change football recruiting

On 20th anniversary, how Nike's The Opening helped change football recruiting

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On 20th anniversary, how Nike's The Opening helped change football recruiting

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Players huddle up after a session of The Opening last summer in Oregon (Photo: by Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Players huddle up after a session of The Opening last summer in Oregon (Photo: by Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Andy Bark saw the opening, a chance to help more high school football players get recruited.

And you don’t need to pardon the pun. The opening Bark references has turned into The Opening, the Nike-sponsored series of events that begins its 20th year this weekend. The Opening Regionals will be held in 14 cities beginning Sunday in Orlando through May 28 in Seattle with approximately 250 players at each site.

“We’re trying to get everyone a look,” said Bark, founder and CEO of Student Sports, which runs the events and helps creates media content. “All we can do is give them one day, and we try to make it a special day. For one day, we’re going to provide a level playing field for every student-athlete that has the aspirations to play in college. They have the desire and the potential and the system called for an opening for us to do that.”

Andy Bark (Photo: Student Sports)

Andy Bark (Photo: Student Sports)

The top 166 players nationally from the regional events will be invited to The Opening Finals, a four-day event in July at Nike World Headquarters in Oregon that 247Sports national scouting director Barton Simmons calls “an absolute game-changer in the evaluation process and camp circuit.”

There is no registration fee for the regional or national events and organizers cover expenses for travel to Oregon.

Portions of the Final air on ESPN, which has been covering the event digitally since the regionals began. ESPN added television coverage in 2008 of the national event when it was the Nike 7 on 7 tournament.

The Opening began with regional events at 10 sites but has continued to expand, mainly focused on NFL cities or major markets.

What Bark saw years ago was a “closed system” in Southern California for high school players. He said the opportunities to play in college were going to players from the same schools year after year. College coaching staffs and recruiting budgets were much smaller; game tape was harder to come by; there was no social media.

“There wasn’t an equal opportunity to play college football, which was for some of us a way to get an education and for some a way to get into professional football,” he said. “Every college coach would go to Long Beach Poly, Loyola and Mater Dei. There’s 1,100 high schools in the state of California. If you didn’t go to top 10 high schools, you weren’t getting considered.”

While Bark says the name “The Opening” doesn’t have a single meaning, he notes “it certainly has caught on.” The events have gained the attention of the top high school football players and recruiting websites around the country, and college coaches pay attention to the results even if NCAA rules now prevent them from attending.

The Finals event is in its sixth year, but Bark began at a much more grassroots level with regional events. That expanded to position-specific competitions such as the Elite 11 for quarterbacks and the Final 5 Linemen Challenge as well as combine-style Rating Days that include the 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, vertical jump and kneeling power ball toss.

According to The Opening, one of every three regional participants signed with a Division I college in 2015 and 47 percent of high school seniors who signed a football scholarship attended a regional event or rating day. Organizers say every Football Bowl Subdivision program last season had at least one player who competed in a regional event.

The regional events include athletic testing and training, position-specific drills, position competitions and one-on-one passing and linemen drills.

Defensive back Andraez Williams (2) defends a pass intended for tight end Isaac Nauta (left) at The Opening Final (Photo: Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Defensive back Andraez Williams (2) defends a pass intended for tight end Isaac Nauta (left) at The Opening Final (Photo: Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Invitations to regional events are given in several ways: Registration information is sent to the top seniors-to-be and top underclassmen. Players can be recommended by their high school coach. Players can email a link to video highlights or a DVD to the evaluators. Players can test well enough at the six Rating Days events around the nation or player can use the Hudl Combine app and upload their information to be considered along with a film evaluation. Each site also has some players who show up on the day of the event and get assessed before being allowed to participate. Brian Stumpf, the president of football events for Student Sports, said the process is in place to insure that players can safely compete at the level required.

There is not a specific number of players per regional who advance to the Finals. Those determinations are made by what evaluators see on film and on the field.

Brian Stumpf (Photo: Student Sports)

Brian Stumpf (Photo: Student Sports)

“It’s a unique experience to come out for the Final,” Stumpf said. “We want kids who are super-talented to be part of it, but we also want motivated kids and kids who will make the most of the opportunity. Some kids are happy with the offers they have, and it might be their father’s or mother’s dreams to take it next level and not their dream. You can get a decent read on that by spending time with kids for six hours on the field. You can see who are the most talented and the one who want to make the most of the opportunity vs. those who are just happy to be there and being too cool for school.”

As interest in recruiting has intensified so has the interest in The Opening.

“The kids themselves are more aware of the opportunity to showcase themselves and compete against guys they’ve read about and seen films of,” said 247Sports’ Simmons. “In some ways, it’s the type of event that self-recruits. When college coaches were barred from attending camps, it became to where the recruiting writers were the only way these guys could get their name out there and that’s motivated kids to show up at these events. They know all the recruiting writers are in one place and they can get the exposure.”

Scout.com national recruiting analyst Allen Trieu called The Opening “the equivalent of the NFL Scouting Combine for a high school kid.”

“This gives players the ability to show they are best in the country,” he said. “They are superstars in their hometown but now they are on equal footing with other kids from around the country. There is no filler at any of these events. Every kid has earned his way there.”

While “name” players are a huge part of The Opening participants, Stumpf and Bark point to countless players who saw their scholarship offers skyrocket after taking part in the regionals or even going from no offers to many based on their performance.

“People in the recruiting industry do a great job, but there still are numerous kids that are not big names,” Stumpf said. “They are getting offers to FBS schools because of the testing results. And there are numerous stories with kids using these events as an excellent opportunity to elevate their profile. It’s a chance to learn from the best and a sidebar benefit is that all the recruiting websites want to see top kids perform and write about them.”

Stumpf describes The Opening Finals and the chance to be on ESPN as “the carrot at the end the string” and has increased interest in the regional events. But players have to get there first. Those invitations begin this weekend in Orlando.

“People want to get to the highest levels,” he said. “There’s always been a core of kids who are motivated and want to get better and jump at the chance to compete in any setting. …

“But if you want a piece of it, you need to show your stuff at the regional level.”

Martial Benton (66) listens to former NFL player Willie McGinest (right) at The Opening Final last summer (Photo: Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Martial Benton (66) listens to former NFL player Willie McGinest (right) at The Opening Final last summer (Photo: Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

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