College football recruiting has become a multibillion-dollar industry

January 23, 2011 

This is the third in a series of stories on college football recruiting. The fourth and final story in the series will be be published on Jan. 30.

By CHRIS WHITE

cwhite@ledger-enquirer.com

High school athletes are no longer the only ones competing for prominence on national signing day.

A profitable market has grown alongside college recruiting, with entrepreneurs finding new ways to build businesses around connecting high school and college coaches and reporting on prospects.

“This is now a multibillion-dollar industry, and all kinds of things have come up to support the college recruiting process,” said Shaun Lain, a program director for a company that offers high school athletes tutoring, test preparation and tours of college campuses. “There is just so much out there right now when it comes to athletes finding a college.”

Lain said College Campus Tours began a dozen years ago in New Orleans, spread west to Houston and is now based in Fayetteville, Ga.

Just two years ago, the company began a nonprofit offshoot, College Athletic Tours, that works with male and female high school athletes in football, track and field, lacrosse and volleyball to prepare them for college and find them athletic scholarships.

With more than 23,000 football scholarships available through NCAA schools alone, Lain said there was a gap waiting to be filled in connecting athletes with colleges.

“I think sports are the great equalizer; if you’re good, you’re good,” Lain said. “And I saw a lot of good athletes not going to colleges and thought I could help them. I also looked at graduation rates for bowl teams and graduation rates overall and was very disappointed. It was a niche I saw and thought I had a solution to.”

A typical three-day, two-night tour for football players includes stops at three colleges, two camps and a college football game. College Athletics Tours offers them in packages, including a $495 one that includes a three-day, two-night summer tour, two two-day, one-night fall tours and two seminars focused on how to succeed in college and improve study habits. Each college stop includes meetings with professors, coaches and tours of academic and athletic facilities. On average, the company mentors 300 students per year, with about half of them going on college tours, Lain said.

“This all started with us wanting to take students to colleges to show them the campus,” Lane said. “Now we work with them on keeping their grades up in high school, getting ready for their ACTs and SATs, getting out to colleges to meet coaches and go to their camps and get them in position to find scholarships.”

Networking

Carver athletic director and assistant football coach Ahmand Tinker has found a niche, too. He co-owns Football Recruiting Expos, a company that brings high school and college coaches together to network and exchange information.

Tinker and his business partner, South Paulding football coach Tim Glanton, began organizing the recruiting fairs in Atlanta five years ago when Tinker noticed college coaches attending similar events in the region. Few of the college coaches were willing to drive to Columbus to meet with only a few high schools, so Tinker got together a group of high school coaches to pay a fee that covered the organizational costs of bringing in everyone to a central location.

“A college coach just isn’t going to be able to make it to 60 high schools, and high school coaches aren’t going to see 170 colleges in two days normally,” Tinker said. “What we do is come in, give them a venue to meet, and they can exchange video and talk about their kids. It’s a win-win situation for all the coaches and their athletes.”

For $150, a high school coach can attend the expo and meet with coaches from nearly 200 colleges.

Elite high school athletes typically have little trouble finding colleges interested in offering scholarships. Tinker said his expos are not geared toward what he described as “five-star, superstar athletes.” He hosts at least one event in December during the week of the Georgia High School Association state championship football games. By then, most FBS teams have secured commitments or at least identified their top recruiting targets.

So instead, Tinker invites coaches from FCS, NCAA Divisions II and III, NAIA and junior colleges that could not afford to visit many high schools while searching for talent the bigger schools overlooked. The Football Recruiting Expos website lists 24 football players, most from the Bi-City area, who signed with colleges on national signing day in February 2010 after their coaches participated in the expos.

For the fans

While Tinker and Lain specialize on working with athletes and coaches, other companies cover recruiting with sports fans in mind.

Websites such as rivals.com and scout.com offer subscription coverage of recruiting and databases of information on high school athletes and have ballooned into popular online draws.

The websites have capitalized on the growing number of college football fans interested in the talent their favorite teams land each year on national signing day. Scout.com and rivals.com have sites that cater to nearly every major college while remaining part of the company’s larger network to create a national coverage base.

“If you take a look at the business, it’s an amazing business model,” said Jamie Newberg, an ESPN recruiting analyst and former rivals.com and scout.com analyst. “They have their own recruiting analysts all over who each have a team of recruiting writers, and now there are just a tremendous amount of people covering it. It’s so multifaceted now that it’s almost to the point of overkill in some places.”

Fox Interactive Media paid $60 million for scout.com in 2005, and Yahoo! purchased rivals.com for nearly $100 million in 2007.

Current subscription numbers were not available from either company, but rivals.com had approximately 180,000 subscribers when Yahoo! purchased it and scout.com boasted nearly 200,000 in 2006.

Newberg, who has held similar positions with rivals.com and scout.com, said he believes those numbers have continued to grow with hundreds of thousands now paying roughly $10 per month or $100 per year for access to the sites’ premium content.

“They have to have at least half a million subscribers between them,” Newberg said. “It’s grown monumentally in just the last few years. It’s unreal.”

Newberg has been on the ground floor of the buildup of recruiting coverage for nearly 20 years, beginning with his time as a producer on the Atlanta-based recruiting television show “Countdown to Signing Day.”

He began publishing “Border Wars,” a Southeast-centered recruiting magazine, and started borderwars.com in 1996. Then came a stint at rivals.com until 2001, seven years with scout.com and another stint with rivals.com before he landed on the ESPN staff in June.

“I’m now about to cover my 19th signing day,” Newberg said. “Back when I started, it was all about newsletters, magazines, that kind of thing. Now people have found out how to use the Internet for this, and it’s been a perfect marriage. It’s light years better than it was when I started and it’s going to continue to evolve with people finding new ways to cover this and get it out there to people who want to see it.”

Chris White, 706-571-8571; follow Chris online at twitter.com/le_chriswhite and at facebook.com/lechriswhite.

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