Burger King looks to become major player in high school football

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Burger King took it first steps to having "their way" in high school football circles.

"We have the momentum and our own play book when it comes to evolving the brand," said Russ Klein, Burger King's President of Global Marketing, Strategy and Innovation.

The game plan is simple: Burger King aims to become a major player in the national high school football scene.

The initial foray in this field was title sponsorship of the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. the USA Challenge, a high school extravaganza, featuring several teams in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 rankings against Ohio schools staged in Ohio cities of Cincinnati and Canton last September.

And now, Burger King addressed the individual side of the sport this week as the inaugural Burger King All-American Varsity Skills Challenge was held. The challenge was held in conjunction with the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game (Saturday, 2 ET, ABC) at Disney's Wide World of Sports.

The Burger King All-American Varsity Skills Challenge airs Jan. 4 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Klein has quite an impressive track record in retail brand marketing. Previously he served as chief marketing officer of 7-Eleven, Inc., where he headed up marketing for 5,800 stores in North America.

He also created fully integrated marketing and advertising programs that enabled Gatorade four straight years of record sales and profitability when he worked with a Chicago-based advertising firm.

When Klein first learned of the Under Armour Game, he immediately placed a call to get the wheels in motion.

"At Burger King, we don't waste time building a cathedral when it comes to research," he said. "We have a good vibe about high schools and with ESPN's involvement even better. We wanted to contribute to this event."

The challenge in a nutshell divided the 80 All-Americans by position: quarterbacks, wide receivers-defensive backs, linemen, and running back and linebackers.

Here's a breakdown of the events:

BK Pass Attack: Quarterbacks competed for distance and accuracy. The player threw three balls at each of the three targets (nine total), with the targets worth different point amounts.

Under Armour Hands Competition: Wide receivers and defensive backs needed to 10 balls in order to advance to an obstacle course. Results were based on solely on time.

U.S. Marines Obstacle Course: Running backs and linebackers ran through an obstacle course in the fastest time possible, with penalties enforced. Results were based on solely on time.

Linemen Strength Challenge: The players were creatively challenged in disciplines of running, hurdling and strength.

"It was a tremendous event," Klein said. "The competition created excitement like on Friday nights and with the alumni who are watching players who will be playing at their alma maters."

A lifelong fan of the Cleveland Browns (he attended Midpark High near Cleveland) and Ohio State Buckeyes (he's an alumnus), Klein admits he loves the "game of football, period."

"Once I saw the ESPN brand and commitment, I felt it was a good place for us," Klein said.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.