When 'sports recruiters' come knocking

Many student-athletes pay thousands of dollars to consultants who market them to college coaches

College coaches don't get out as much as they used to. Only the most competitive schools can afford to fly them around the country in search of the next big talent, and most rarely attend games further than a few hours from campus.

Enter the "sports recruiter." For a fee, this individual or company builds a profile of a college-bound athlete - and sends it to as many coaches as the client is willing to pay for.

Indeed, families of some high school students fork over thousands of dollars to sports recruiters to ensure that the athlete's stats - plus video footage of his or her sports prowess - are seen by coaches around the country.

Hiring a professional marketer to help athletes get into their dream college is not new. The industry has been around since the 1980s, when competition intensified to get into top schools. The business boomed in the late '90s, as sports recruiters began to use the World Wide Web as a way to get out the word about their clients' talents.

The trouble is that sports-recruiting websites may become victims of their own success. They've proliferated so fast that some coaches are coming to distrust the industry, complaining they can't tell the knowledgeable companies from sports-illiterate startups.

Penny Hastings, author of "How to Win a Sports Scholarship," says coaches aren't interested in hearing from consultants and parents.

"The No. 1 person they like to be contacted by is the student-athlete herself," says Ms. Hastings, who surveys hundreds of college coaches and admissions counselors every year. "It shows initiative."

Still, for many families of gifted athletes, the college-admissions process is so complex as to be daunting -- especially if a scholarship or financial-aid package is involved.

"That's where recruiters step in," says Tom Starr, vice president of operations at College Prospects of America in Logan, Ohio, one of the nation's largest and most reputable sports-recruiting companies.

"If we can help student-athletes go on to use their sports to help subsidize paying for college ... that's worthwhile for us to continue to try to pursue," Mr. Starr says. "That's the most gratifying part of what we do."

Students who come to Starr spend at least $1,000 to have their vital statistics placed in a pamphlet - filled with information on perhaps several hundred students - and sent to a handful of schools.

The $2,000 package, on the other hand, includes a more comprehensive profile, edited video footage, and assistance with financial-aid searches.

High expectations

Why are some athletes willing to spend so much extra money to try to boost their prospects of getting into a good school?

Many students and their families expect a big payback, Hastings says. "It's a sort of fantasy for parents who seek financial help. But coaches don't want to get someone who was pushed, pushed, pushed by their parents."

Families can be heavily influenced by media images of money and fame, Starr says. Male football, basketball, and baseball players, as well as female volleyball, basketball, and soccer players - sports with the highest paid professional US teams - are the ones who most often send money to get their names out, he says. Starr also sees more golf and tennis players hiring recruiters, likely due to the success of Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams.

"The publicity out there on those types of teams ... does lead to an increase in participation in those sports," Starr says. "They see they could be professional, with the glitz and glamour of money."

Starr emphasizes that it's important for students to remember that only a few make the leap from college to professional sports. "Quite frankly, less than half a percent of the kids who play in college are going to play professionally. It keeps getting tougher."

To punt the ball or foot the bill

Stuart Scandridge first learned of sports recruiters when one knocked on his door in Houston.

His son Chris, a skilled quarterback in his senior year in high school, caught the eye of a recruiter when he made some important plays at the homecoming football game.

But all attempts to talk down the price of marketing Chris to big football schools proved futile. The recruiter wouldn't budge: It would cost Mr. Scandridge $1,250 to send a sheet of information to 200 schools.

"That just took the air out of him," Scandridge says. "There's not a photograph, just the statistics and a name. These people came to us and called themselves recruiters, and I thought, he's not from a college, he's from a business. He's trying to turn a profit."

It was too much money for the father of six, so Scandridge typed up three pages of information about Chris and his activities and faxed them to 50 colleges himself. Within a week, 17 schools responded by mail and by phone. Chris was a hot commodity.

But after months of searching, Chris ultimately chose a school where he could pursue his lifelong dream of being a pilot - even though it meant forfeiting his football ambitions.

"It's important for kids to understand that the world is made up of more than one thing," his father says.

Coaching kids to talk to coaches

The amount of money students were paying for what he considers to be mediocre service prompted Scandridge to launch his own Web company, TopJock.net, three years ago.

The site is still a work in progress, but Scandridge is eager to educate students about the entire process of college admissions - which he says is anything but glitz and glamour.

The site gives student-athletes their own e-mail addresses and personal Web pages. Students then e-mail coaches a link to their site, which includes vital statistics, personal and academic information, and a videotaped introduction to footage of the athlete in action.

The total price for this service comes to between $500 and $800, less than half the amount most companies charge.

"Our system is for the self-motivated, self-disciplined, proactive students," Scandridge says. "This isn't just about getting financial aid. We actually school our kids, once they're in contact with coaches, on how to stay in contact and how to ... try to make this an educational experience."

The team is key, but so is the college

Monica Wojcik isn't interested in fame. As the star New England runner sweeps past screaming teammates around the last turn of her mile-long race, her eye is on one thing: the finish line. As she crosses, she breaks into a bashful smile.

"I did it," Monica says breathlessly as she approaches her coach, sweat beading its way across her forehead. "That's my best time all season."

Not only did the Brookline (Mass.) High School senior just run the mile in less than 5-1/2 minutes, she is also a national merit finalist with a perfect SAT score, a painter, tutor, pianist, and the author of her own cookbook.

Monica has exactly what many colleges are looking for, so why aren't any coaches sitting next to her mother on the bleachers?

It can be a daunting task to attract the attention of coaches. That's why many high school athletes hire "sports recruiters" - consultants who compile a profile to market them to colleges.

Monica, however, decided to conduct her own search for schools where she can balance her interests in distance running and biology or chemistry. She narrowed her choices down to four: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale.

Many student-athletes overlook that first step - whittling potential schools down to a manageable pool - and make the mistake of searching for the right sports team without giving enough thought to academics, says Wayne Mazzoni, head baseball coach at Teikyo Post University in Waterbury, Conn., and author of "Athletic Recruiting and Scholarship Guide."

"About 75 percent of athletes drop off [the team] by their senior year in college," he says. "If a kid in high school picks a college just because a coach calls, but then they get hurt or realize they're at the wrong school, what's their recourse?"

Monica says she is confident she will have a better college experience than if she had used a recruiter.

"You should go where the college accepts you for who you are, not because you found the better advertiser," she says. "If I wasn't accepted at Harvard, I would be disappointed, but that would mean it wasn't right for me."

Monica has already been accepted at Harvard and MIT. As she waits to hear from the other two schools, she's starting to weigh her choices. She's been in close contact with the coach from MIT, but Harvard has yet to return her messages.

"Maybe I'll go to a Division I school [like Harvard, with a more competitive team] where the coach doesn't even talk to me, but I might be happier at MIT, where they're Division III, and much more interested," she says.

But track isn't everything.

"I'm not planning on being an Olympic runner, so the academic side becomes more important. It's going to come down to where I feel more comfortable."

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