LAWRENCE — Go to any sports section or blog dedicated to college football and a few things will be constant: Discussion of recruits will abound, with frequent reference to their “star ratings”; people will argue over whether the ratings matter, and coaches will dismiss them summarily. A University of Kansas professor and graduate student have authored a study examining whether coaches actually are using recruiting websites, and it turns out they are.
Max Utsler, associate professor of journalism, co-authored the study with William Nolan, who launched the project as a master’s thesis. Nolan conducted a series of interviews with college football coaches to determine if and how they use popular sites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com and if those sites influence the decisions they make. They recently presented the findings to the International Association of Communication and Sport at the University of Texas.
“Our basic premise was the coaches will deny until the cows come home that they use these sites. But they do,” Utsler said.
Sites like Rivals and Scouts have exploded in popularity over the past decade-plus as college football has become an ever-bigger, ever-more-profitable business. The pressure on coaches to win is omnipresent and to do so, they must recruit the best possible players. Fans have flocked to the sites, paying subscription fees to read about high school football players, their talents and the colleges they are considering attending or have committed to. Subscription fees, it should be added, that many are no longer willing to pay to newspapers, which frequently cite the services’ “star ratings” of given players.
The top prospects are assigned a five-star rating. The majority of college talent lands in the two- and three-star range. The nation’s top programs routinely claim the five- and four-star recruits.
Utsler and Nolan interviewed assistant coaches at programs that don’t have inherent recruiting advantages. Big-time programs such as Alabama, Texas and Southern California are regularly able to pick and choose which recruits they want. They also excluded programs from the states of Florida, Texas and California as those three states produce 42 percent of Division I college football talent and have an inherent geographical advantage. They ended up with a list of nine schools, both BCS automatic and non-automatic qualifiers: Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas, Marshall, Washington State, Northern Iowa, New Mexico, Kentucky and Utah.
“We wanted to look at schools that clearly didn’t have a geographical advantage,” Utsler said. “The presumption being the more you have to expand your recruiting area, the more you might want to use a site like Rivals or Scout. We also wanted to look at schools that had to focus their efforts on the three-star-type players.”
The researchers asked all coaches three questions and a series of followups:
- Do Rivals.com and/or Scout.com guide your search for players to recruit?
- Does a prospect’s star rating have any bearing on your evaluation of the prospects’ ability
- Do you see a difference in how BCS conference schools use Rivals.com and/or Scout.com compared with non-BCS or non-automatic qualifier schools?
The results indicated a variety of ways in which coaches use the sites, but nearly all said they at least consult them from time to time. Only one said they consult the sites to compile an initial list of players to recruit. Others said they did not, but most claimed to keep an eye on the sites to read about what recruits they are targeting are saying and thinking and to see any other coverage may be appearing. Several noted that recruits tend to be more honest with the sites than they are with coaches.
When asked if a player’s star rating influences whether or not they decide to recruit them, most flatly denied it, saying it is more important to scout kids’ abilities themselves and to rely on high school coaches’ input. Two separate coaches related anecdotes of players they were recruiting whose ratings rose or dropped simply based on what schools were talking to them. One was rated a four star, then committed to Northern Iowa and dropped to a two star almost overnight. Another was rated a two star and committed to New Mexico for months, but Texas expressed an interest and suddenly the player was rated four stars.
Regardless of how much the coaches in the survey claim to use the recruiting sites, the authors argue the services without a doubt influence media coverage of recruiting. Players hold press conferences in which they announce the school they’ll attend while national TV cameras roll. Fans gladly eat up the coverage, and coaches serve their fan base by either reinforcing the sites’ rankings or denying their worth.
“While the coaches’ answers appeared to downplay the role Rivals.com and Scout.com play in recruiting, their tone revealed the sites may factor into the process more than they admitted…” the authors wrote. “Overall, Rivals.com and Scout.com steer the agenda of recruiting in a multimillion dollar collegiate sport.”