Rise Up, a four-week series that premiered tonight on ESPN, could easily have been called Extreme Makeover: Sports Edition. From a branding perspective, that probably wouldn’t have been best, but it would have been more accurate. The goal in this series is unassailably noble: Pick a town with poor economic resources and revitalize its high school sports program as a way to ignite local pride and teach healthy lifestyles to the young members of the community. One could argue that the money would be better suited for revitalizing the school’s education facilities instead of the sports facilities, but Rise Up isn’t a real life tussle between Tami Taylor and the Dillon Panther boosters. While the merits of a sports-based revitalization might be a topic worth debating, Rise Up isn’t exactly anxious to have that debate.
Tonight’s premiere took place in Wellston, Ohio. It’s a town that John Cougar Mellancamp would have felt comfortable singing about in the 1980s: a Midwestern town that has worn down over the decades, due to economic strife, neglect, and an increasingly dire prognosis of any type of recovery. Using Wellston as a stand-in for any town in this particular predicament works in the show’s favor: It never stresses that Wellston is one of far too many towns in similar circumstances, because it doesn’t have to do so. Its singular focus on this town allows the viewer to infer this town is representative of a far more widespread problem.
While the goal of the show is noble, the actual implementation is sadly scattershot. The biggest problem? Rise Up should have been a series that stayed in Wellston, Ohio, for the duration of its short run. You might argue that would deny three other worthy programs the infusion of resources they needed. I would argue that a single episode’s worth of content leaves an enormous amount of valuable material on the cutting room floor. Ty Pennington and Company can build house after house on a weekly basis because they aren’t seeking to fix a community. They are simply trying to help a family. That narrow focus makes the journeyman approach to their builds pay off. But while the renovation of the Wellston Golden Rockets’ athletic facilities is impressive, it’s Wellston itself that would have made this show truly leave a lasting impression.
Co-hosts Chris Spielman (a former NFL linebacker and current ESPN college football analyst) and Deanna Bell (licensed engineer) seek not only to heal the facilities but heal the town itself. Not only is the town in disrepair, but it has just lost one of its most important citizens just before the show’s arrival. Jim Derrow, who worked in the high school for 27 years and functioned as surrogate father to generations of students, passed away just a week before the start of the renovation. As such, Speilman and Bell arrive in a town literally as low as it’s been in decades. And yet, little time is spent on this compelling human interest story. Yes, Derrow’s memory gets built into the new structures, but his story, along with so many others, gets lost in the rush to show the completion of the new football stadium by the end of the hour.
Interspersed with Derrow’s story and the rehabilitation of the Golden Rockets’ facilities are a half dozen other individuals, each of whom seem to have enough backstory to fill the hour themselves. There’s the assistant football coach, who works for free and just lost the restaurant he started. There’s the superintendent, who also doubles as a volunteer cheerleading coach. There’s the cheerleader, who volunteers in her community, yet has to practice at another school because they don’t even have lockers of their own in Wellston. There’s the middle linebacker who talks of his impending meeting with a recruiter… only to reveal said recruiter is for the military, not a college scholarship. These are just a handful of people that all deserved more air time, because in shows like this, the renovation is just the icing on the cake. Without caring about the people receiving it, it’s just an hour of architecture.
As for the renovation itself, there’s a refreshing honesty in terms of its lifespan and ultimate completion. Whereas Extreme Makeover imports a small country full of people in blue shirts to knock out a mansion in a week, the Wellston renovation takes a few months with small crews of local volunteers. Said volunteers get plenty of exposure for their businesses (as they should) but rarely have additional manpower beyond their own staff in order to aid the high school. While Deanna Bell gets headlining credit as the lead engineer on the project, it’s really the head of a local construction company that serves as project manager for the renovation. That’s not a knock on Bell’s credentials but rather a way to note that she did very little for which an engineering degree was necessary. (Was Erin Andrews busy? She doesn't have an engineering degree but could have performed Bell's function just as easily.)
But while the end result is a satisfying transformation, and everyone who sees it flips out in excitement, we simply haven’t spent enough time with these people to really make the reveal pop the way it should. Had it occurred at the end of the four-week run of the show, then greater catharsis might have been possible. Maybe that sells the Rise Up program short with such a singular focus, but there’s a difference between the impact of Rise Up as a social program and Rise Up as a television program. The former needs to do as many projects as possible to make its impact. But the latter needed to do one and do it more deeply, in order to make its full impact upon those watching from home. We need not have spent five seasons with them as we did with those down in Dillon, Texas. But our hearts would have certainly been fuller had our eyes lingered on Wellston a little longer.
- Not only did Spielman have connections to this town, having gone to Ohio State University himself, but former Buckeyes’ alum Eddie George also stopped by briefly in order to motivate the football team toward greatness on and off the field. It was one of many moments that worked well as a specific segment but often felt odd when smashed up against the renovation storylines and the personal interest storylines.
- Speaking of Spielman, there probably were more dynamic hosts that ESPN could have hired. He often looked uncomfortable speaking in public and often walked into rooms as if he just had beaten someone up nearby and hoped nobody caught on.
- The number of kids that work jobs simply to help their families pay their bills was staggering. Watching one kid juggle school, sports, a job, and life in a small town would have been fascinating. Seeing it for 30 seconds simply wasn’t enough.
- I started to wonder if the girls not having the same facilities as the boys was cause for a class-action lawsuit, until I realized that very few people in this town probably have the energy or the know-how to initiate such a thing themselves. In any case, the transformation for the girls’ room is the most striking and in many ways, the most satisfying.
- “It almost makes more sense NOT to take a shower.”
- “They don’t have grass. They have weeds growing on top of concrete.”
- “I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, jump… so I did them all.”
- “I don’t think anyone’s been in here in five years.”