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VOL. 37 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 25, 2013

Feeding the appetite of the year-round fan

Recruiting websites with Brentwood roots make their fortunes tracking teen stars

By Brandon Gee

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If you thought the college football season ended with Alabama’s 42-14 thumping of Notre Dame on Jan. 7, think again.

For a growing body of fans, following a college football team has become a year-round pursuit aided by websites that charge hundreds of thousands of users $10 a month for every-turn-of-the-screw reporting on the recruiting of elite high school football players.

That season climaxes on the first Wednesday of February, National Signing Day.

The history of these multimillion-dollar recruiting news providers includes bankruptcies, acquisitions, lawsuits, spoiled partnerships and all the intrigue, competition and rivalry of a college football season itself. And much of the story has played out in Middle Tennessee.

Supplying a demand

Experts say it isn’t that recruiting websites have created the rabid demand for up-to-the-minute information on the whims of high school athletes. Instead, those who run the sites have figured out how best to satisfy fans’ desire for this type of information.

“They’re responding to a desire in the marketplace where people want to remain connected to their team throughout the year,” says Don Roy, sports business studies coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University.

“It’s not surprising that there’s a desire for year-round consumption of information given the passion of college football fans. And it’s not surprising that these sites are responding to that.”

Before the websites, fans had to rely on local reporters, who weren’t recruiting experts, sports radio dominated more by speculation not reporting, and national media that covered sports on a broad, not deep, scale.

Some hardcore fans were willing to call expensive 900 numbers for more in-depth recruiting news for specific schools. The Internet trumped them all.

“Sports reporters at local papers weren’t recruiting experts and left people wanting more,” says Ben Koo, an Internet entrepreneur and former contributor to BuckNuts.com, an Ohio State recruiting news website.

“Recruiting is a year-round topic to cover. People wanted to see the year-round process. It is a little bit addictive for college football fans. Charging a subscription for this kind of information proved a viable model in all this.”

The big three

The three big recruiting news websites, Rivals.com, 247Sports.com and Scout.com, follow a similar model for gathering information nationwide: They contract with local publishers and reporters – primarily college-specific websites like VandyMania.com, GoVols247.com, BuckNuts.com and Orangebloods.com (University of Texas) – and supplement their coverage with a team of national and regional experts.

Shannon Terry

“What we’ve been able to do is go deep and narrow,” says Eric Winter, who runs market leader Rivals.com, which is owned by Yahoo and has approximately 250 contracted publishers and 30 full-time staff.

“We feel the need and we feed the daily habits of the more than 50 million unique users who come to Rivals.com on a monthly basis,” Winter adds. “Our staff meticulously picks partners at the local level and gives them tools they need to succeed.”

Industry nurtured in Brentwood

Rivals.com rose to prominence while based in Brentwood and helmed by local resident Shannon Terry, a Lipscomb University graduate who assembled a group of investors to purchase Rivals out of bankruptcy in 2001.

Terry’s team beat out Jim Heckman’s attempt to rescue the company he founded in 1998 with a separate group of investors.

“Shannon was kind of the white knight who came in and acquired investors and assets,” Koo says. “I think he took the baton (from Heckman), two-thirds of the way through the race and carried it home. The first team ran too fast and ran out of money.”

Undeterred, Heckman launched a new site, Scout.com. Rivals and Scout were fierce competitors whose efforts to court team-specific publishers led to lawsuits a decade ago.

Both Terry and Heckman were immensely successful. News Corp. bought Scout in 2005 for a reported $60 million.

Two years later, Yahoo bought Rivals for a reported $100 million.

Terry, who declined an interview request for this story, went to Yahoo with Rivals but didn’t stay long with the California-based company.

After a non-compete agreement expired, Terry launched 247Sports.com in 2010 in the same Brentwood office complex where he had grown Rivals from a start-up company to a staff of more than 100.

In less than three years, 247Sports is one of the big three sites for recruiting news, Koo says, and claims to be the fastest-growing of the three.

It also has placed an emphasis on developing a first-class mobile platform that it hopes will help differentiate it from its competitors.

“Now you have three companies, and Scout is run by the guy who started Rivals and 247 is run by the guy who stabilized Rivals,” Koo says.

“(Terry) understands the college football fan, the experience they want and the information they want. I think he saw an opportunity to improve upon that vision that he was unable to push through the red tape at Yahoo.

“He saw and seized an opportunity to go past Scout and Rivals. He knows what fans want and how to deliver it. He is the most in tune with what the people who want this information are into.”

If Rivals’ Winter is worried, he isn’t showing it.

“It’s a very crowded marketplace, but given the depth, breadth and offerings of Yahoo Sports, frankly, we’re really in a category of our own,” Winter says.

“As I share with our team, we’re focused on ourselves, and we’re focused on our content offerings, our users, our message and feeding the daily habits of our audience. We can only win by focusing from the inside out.”

Passions, obsessions

The emergence and growing prominence of these sites has led to an unprecedented level of national media attention being paid to high school – and, in some instances, even middle school – athletes.

“We can cover one student athlete for 8 to 9 years,” Winter says. “We catch them early and cover them all the way through their college eligibility. We create a relationship with the athlete, coach, parent or guardians at the beginning of the recruiting process. Some begin in ninth grade. The majority we start covering in their sophomore year.”

While the task of ranking hundreds of the best high school athletes nationwide and differentiating that a defensive end in San Diego is one rank ahead of another in Bangor, Maine, seems daunting if not impossible, Winter says the majority of the work is done not during high school seasons but in elite, invitation-only camps and leagues.

Rivals’ employees attend these events, and the company has even begun hosting some of its own.

“There’s the high-school season, when the best athletes play against mediocre competition,” Winter says. “Then there’s the all-star camp season from January to July. That’s when the best athletes get invited to invite-only camps, where five-stars go against five-stars, four-stars go against four-stars and three-stars go against three-stars. We get to see how they stack up against their peers. That’s when you’re going to see stellar performance.”

College recruiting classes are then ranked based on how many five-star, four-star and three-star athletes accept their scholarship offers, Winter adds.

But while Winter is “hyper-focused on delivering the needs of the passionate sports fan and fulfilling their daily habits,” others are not sure the attention is good for the teenagers being covered.

“I am always worried about what kind of effect the notoriety and popularity of sports can have on the children,” says Rick Grieve, a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University who studies sports fan behavior. “I think there are some kids who can handle that kind of exposure and some who can’t. I would err on the side of decreasing it.

“It may feed something we don’t want. There are always unintended consequences to things we do. We publicize it because people are interested in it, but on the other hand there does come with it some kind of sense of entitlement for the athlete.

“That’s never a good thing,” he adds. “I think we’re developing a young athlete culture that may not be the best for the kids.”

Interest, however, is not expected to ebb, especially now that the Internet has made access to recruiting news convenient, comprehensive and cheap.

“It does provide information for fans to talk about, but on the other hand it gives the fan some status as a fan,” Grieve says. “If I’m a big Vanderbilt fan, and I know the next big player coming before everyone else, I have some cache there.”

And while the sites may initially have been responding to a pre-existing demand of hardcore fans, they are now catching the attention of mainstream fans and creating an interest level in the news the fuels itself, says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

“We’ve almost professionalized sport to the second grade,” he says. “The reason I think people are so interested in recruits is sports is so ubiquitous. Everywhere people are passionate about it, sometimes crazed.

“Things become obsessions for certain people. It may deflect attention away from other things in their life.”

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