The Changing Landscape of College Athletic Recruiting

I’ve written extensively about my experiences as a high school swimmer. As a senior in 1993, I received some attention from college coaches who were interested in my joining their team to continue both my academic and athletic pursuits. In those days, there were two primary forms of communication, telephones and the US postal service. The world-wide web was still two years from being unveiled to the masses, smart phones were the stuff of science fiction, and social networking happened at 7:00 in the morning when all of the old men in town met up for breakfast at Hardee’s. While a simpler time, the recruiting process for prospective student athletes was also a bit mysterious. For example, I never did find out, nor will I probably ever find out, how Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD found me, a small town Indiana boy who barely made a splash at the state finals, and decided that I was a legitimate recruiting target. Back then, processes seemed slower, the world seemed bigger, and if someone wanted information about you, they’d have to actually come and talk to you.

Fast forward twenty-five years, and I am no longer being pursued for my athletic abilities. However, I now have a son who shows legitimate promise as a sprinter in track & field. Perhaps more importantly, he’s also interested in running in college. However, his high school is even smaller than mine was, and is known more for its football successes than for anything else. Track and field is kind of an afterthought, as are small, rural Illinois towns in general. How, in this age of constant bombardment and multiple social channels, is it possible to match a student up with the best athletic and academic program?

In some ways, it’s actually easier now than in the past. Especially for smaller colleges with tiny recruiting budgets and coaches who are already stretched thin by everyday duties. I’ve found that nearly every NCAA Division III or NAIA school has a recruiting page on their athletic site. It usually consists of a questionnaire asking for basic information (height, weight, contact info) as well as best events/times and GPA. In a few cases, Connor has heard back from coaches (assistant and head) within a relatively short time frame, and in some cases he’s not heard back at all. We’ve found the best way to get a response from a college coach is to fill out the questionnaire while sending a direct e-mail to the head coach (also available via the website) at the same time. That way, the coach knows that you’re really interested and not just filling out every questionnaire on the Internet.

Apart from reaching out individually, I wanted to also see if we could leverage some of the Internet-based technology tools that now exists. Would it be possible to combine data, search algorithms and social networking in a way to connect Connor with other schools that we may not be aware of, or who may not have previously been aware of him? Connor’s coach at Dee-Mack High School uses Athletic.net to record times and meet results, which is a great start, but I was still curious if there was something a little more … brand-oriented that we could try? Something that painted a better picture of Connor as both an athlete and a student? I eventually did some poking around on forums relating to recruiting services, which led me to Next College Student Athlete, or NCSA.

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NCSA seeks to simplify the recruiting process for students through the use of technology. The approach seems simple enough. They build a huge database of prospective student athletes, and the schools and coaches will come looking for potential recruits. In fact, the first thing an athlete does on the website is fill out a free “athletes profile”, inputting all vital statistics and preferences into the NCSA database. Once you hit a certain point, you are informed that you will be contacted by one of the NCSA “recruiting experts” in order to complete the profile.

Filling out the profile was pretty easy for us. We had all of the information handy, either via Athletic.net or Dee-Mack HS’s website. I suppose the less tech-savvy might struggle a bit with some of the questions, but we required little assistance in that regard. I even had a YouTube video of one of Connor’s races that I was able to link into the profile. It looked pretty good! A few days later, I was contacted by NCSA while at work, and I wandered out into the atrium area, curious how a conversation with a recruiting expert would go. The young man on the other end of the line read though the profile information with me, and with each race PR, told me about how far (time-wise) Connor was from being interesting to college coaches. He informed me due to Connor’s times not being fast enough, that we weren’t quite ready to be considered “verified” on the site, but that we would keep the free profile up. I was a little surprised to hear him turning away a potential customer after such a brief conversation, but I thanked him for his time and hung up the phone. Surprise slowly gave way to confusion as I wondered what we had done wrong. After all, I did not expect Big Ten coaches to be knocking our door off the hinges, but Connor was only just starting his junior year, and all of the PR’s listed were obtained by a lanky sophomore who was still somewhat biding his time behind some state-quality upperclassmen. Apparently this recruiting expert did not understand the concept of athletic potential. Or maybe I was just viewing everything through the “dad lens”?

In the several weeks following the phone conversation, I continued to get e-mails from NCSA about blog posts and video seminars with NCSA employees, past athletes and coaches. I participated in/read some of them. They usually had some good little tips and nuggets that have helped us to refine our college searching techniques. I will say this, NCSA does give away some good information for free. I found the insights from ex-coaches especially interesting, and their social channels are constantly posting reminders and videos that can prove helpful.

About six weeks after the NCSA phone call, I unexpectedly received another call, from another recruiting expert. Less enthusiastically this time, I went through the motions of looking through the profile, validating the information and times, and was shocked when, at the end of the conversation, he offered to set up a free consultation with one of their track and field specialists in order to get Connor’s profile verified. I was befuddled. I told him about the previous conversation I’d had with NCSA and how his times weren’t fast enough to proceed. Then I asked him what had changed (knowing that the answer was “nothing”; I hadn’t touched the profile since our previous call). He said he wasn’t sure why I was turned away the first time, but assured me that Connor’s times were right on the cusp of what small college coaches were looking for. So, still curious about the process, I went ahead and scheduled the call.

The NCSA conference call is an interesting mix of educating and selling the recruit’s family on the power of the NCSA recruiting portal. Indeed, they have done some fine work on developing a site that allows for searching across multiple schools based on many characteristics such as location, size, athletic or academic vigor, and tuition. Likewise, I assume the coach’s portal allows for similar types of data queries on the recruits, themselves. The expert on the call spends a good deal of time with the family explaining the features and extolling the virtues of the services NCSA can provide.

At the end of the call, they present you with the bottom line. You can purchase premium recruiting services from NCSA in several different tiers. The lowest tiers included mainly website benefits, such as increased visibility of your profile (we’ll go into what this means a little later on) and messaging with coaches. The highest tiers take a more hand-held approach to recruiting which includes a personal recruiting coach and recurring consultations. Regrettably, I did not screenshot the pricing page. I say this because it is impossible to go back and find later. NCSA buries that link because they want you to talk to one of their sales reps before seeing the pricing tiers. Because it is EXPENSIVE. I don’t remember the exact numbers but we’re talking close to $1000 for the lowest of three tiers. The sales rep expert (as he shall henceforth be known) on the call allowed us to put him on hold while we discussed which tier of service we wanted. After seeing the pricing, I spent a good part of the “on hold” session explaining to Connor that, for our situation, there was no chance that we would ever get that type of investment back. We were looking at schools that did not give athletic scholarships, for the most part. And realistically, any school that was big enough to offer athletic scholarships would likely not be giving them to a borderline track and field prospect. To be fair, NCSA sells tiers, it is not a subscription service. So, once you’ve paid off your tier, it’s yours for however long your recruiting journey lasts. This is one way they try to justify the price tag.

NCSA pricing

Pricing table as it appears on the NCSA public-facing website

When we came back on the line, we told the sales guy thanks, but we’d be sticking with the free package for now. After a few hail-mary attempts to upsell us, he verified Connor’s account and we went our separate ways. I don’t begrudge NCSA for trying to make money. I’ve seen disgruntled people jumping on the free webinars and leaving comments about how much of a “rip off” they are – but I guess that depends on your situation. Employing actual people to provide consultation services can’t be cheap, and I do believe that at the end of the day, they’re trying to provide a service that is needed in today’s recruiting environment. Coaches are at an advantage. They do this all the time, so they’re experienced at it. Athletes and their families go through it once, maybe twice, and there is a steep learning curve because, for the student-athlete, everything is time-sensitive.

Now for the shady side of NCSA. If you look closely at the paid tiers they offer, you’ll see a couple of mysterious benefits like improved Google search ranking and enhanced profile promotion. Those things can sound like techno-gobbletyguk to the uninitiated, and they’re pretty non-specific even for those of us in tech. So, a few weeks after our call (I waited a while just to make sure all search algorithms had a chance to update), I started doing some test searches with Connor’s name and various search terms like “track and field”, “Dee-Mack”, “Deer-Creek Mackinaw”, “NCSA”, “200M”, etc. I found a couple of interesting things:

First of all, when searching for Connor Griggs NCSA, which under most circumstances would trigger the NCSA profile page using Google’s normal algorithm, did not bring up his page at all. It simply did not exist in the search results. It did, however, bring up the NCSA Dee-Mack football result, which means that the NCSA is making the connection between Connor and Dee-Mack on the back end, but is specifically blocking Connor’s profile page from being indexed by Google. Searching for another athlete at Connor’s school did garner his NCSA profile page as the top result, presumably because he had paid for one of the NCSA service levels. Thus, the assertion that you’re paying for improved Google search ranking is kind of misleading, since you’re paying to be indexed at all.

Connor's search result

These are the Google search results for “Connor Griggs NCSA”. His profile page is nowhere in the results, but an NCSA page for Dee-Mack football does show up

 

Teammate search result

This is the search result for one of Connor’s Dee-Mack teammates. The very first result links to his NCSA profile page

Secondly, once you do eventually find your way to Connor’s NCSA profile page (usually via another page with a drop-down of athlete’s names), you can see a list of “top” athletes for both the high school and the local area. This list is not just a random rotation, it’s the same three or four kids every single time. And it doesn’t matter which sport you’re currently looking at, basketball and volleyball players are shown alongside runners when you’re viewing somebody’s track and field profile.

(from the Dee-Mack football recruiting NCSA page. The arrows indicate repeating athletes):

 

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(from another Dee-Mack athlete’s NCSA profile page):athlete NCSA top athletes.png

Once again, I assume these are the kids who have paid for an NCSA service tier. They are presented over and over again as the top prospects from a specific high school or area. I don’t have a problem with paid advertising, I really don’t. But I do think that labeling a paid spot as a top prospect without also including a small disclaimer is, once again, a bit misleading. When a search engine or a news site includes paid content or advertised search results, as a matter of good faith they include some kind of indication why those results/posts are receiving preferential treatment. When NCSA does it, they do so without any hint that the spot containing the athlete has been paid for.

But beyond high prices and somewhat questionable business practices, is NCSA worth it? Since we decided to use only the free tier, it’s kind of hard to judge. Through NCSA, Connor has heard from a couple of colleges who were not on our radar, but it doesn’t look like any of them are a particularly good fit. What I have seen happen is that larger schools (Youngstown State, in our case) are blanketing NCSA T&F recruits with camp invites, presumably to fill out camp rosters and provide the school with another revenue stream. I might take the camp invites a little more seriously if we’d heard separately from the coach associated with the school, but absent that contact, the invite feels more like a mass mailer than anything else.

I think maybe a better question is, who is the NCSA good for? I’ve been struggling a little bit with this question. Top NCAA Division I prospects will not have trouble getting their name recognized, and thus do not need the help of NCSA. For people in our situation, NCAA DIII schools do not give athletic scholarships, so the return on investment is nil. Poorer (and many middle-class) families will be priced out of the product. What we’re left with is upper-middle class families with borderline DI/DII student athletes. Seems like a pretty narrow demographic to me. Or perhaps I’m not seeing the big picture. Maybe NCSA is simply for those who will pay anything to give their kids a shot at their dreams.

As for us, we’re content to go it alone. Doing our own research, making our own contacts, and visiting schools on our own time. This approach puts us in the driver’s seat and allows us to take a holistic view of the school in question: the academic, athletic, cultural, financial fit.

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