Teens’ digital footprint helping recruiters target athletes

Ben Weiss of Zcruit explains how the company helps college football teams find recruits to Penn linebackers coach Jon Dupont (Photo courtesy Zcruit)

Ben Weiss has never met you. But chances are, if you’re one of the top high school football prospects in the country, the dude can already read you like a book.

“With some kids, it’s going to be more of a slam dunk giveaway than others,” said Weiss, the CEO and co-founder of Zcruit, a Chicago-based sports recruiting database and analytics platform. “There are some kids that are a lot less active on Twitter, that aren’t much on social media.”

What teen athletes post on social media is providing clues to recruiters in their interests, opening yet another door into privacy matters

If you’re a recruiting prospect — heck, if you’re a teenager, period — you’ve probably left digital hints or digital footprints all over cyberspace. Weiss and his cohorts started connecting these dots as a service to college football programs roughly a year and a half ago.

Weiss offered an example: Zcruit research found football recruits wind up committing 53 percent of the time to the school they like the most tweets from before they actually make their commitment decision public. Those are the signposts that Weiss and his cohorts have used to build a client base of more than 30 Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision programs.

“There are some data where you can start pegging some trends there,” Weiss said.

You can start counting the dollars, too. According to SportsDataStrategies.com, a data consulting service in greater Phoenix, the sports analytics market is estimated to be valued at $4.7 billion by 2021.

“We’ve had conversations in the past, and I’ve had conversations with my associates and with other services, and the genie’s kind of out of the bottle, as far as information, with social media and everything else,” explained Mark Branstad, founder and CEO of Tracking Football, an Indianapolis-based sports data and recruiting service.

“I think that, for a long time, high school coaches wanted to protect athletes, and they were not really crazy about that information being out there and packaging that information and selling it. At one time, when I was a teacher and a coach, I felt the same way. Looking at it now, that information is already out there and it’s the athletes themselves or the parents who are pushing to get that out. It’s almost, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, someone else will.’” - Mark Branstad, founder and CEO of Tracking Football

“I think that, for a long time, high school coaches wanted to protect athletes, and they were not really crazy about that information being out there and packaging that information and selling it. At one time, when I was a teacher and a coach, I felt the same way. Looking at it now, that information is already out there and it’s the athletes themselves or the parents who are pushing to get that out. It’s almost, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, someone else will.’”

Weiss became one of those someones in 2015 while he was an undergraduate at Northwestern. He developed a business plan for Zcruit in April of that year and tested it on the Wildcats — an academic powerhouse whose profile requires it to recruit nationally and selectively — a few months later.

“I was frustrated at how inefficient the recruiting process was,” Weiss explained. “You spend a lot of time and money chasing the wrong guys, and that’s wasted time and resources.

“If there are 15,000 prospects, let’s say 4,000 of them are good enough to play at your school. And say only 2,000 of those guys actually have the grades to get into your place. And then we’re down to that fact that only 800 of them are in your geographic footprint, and only 400 are likely to say, ‘Yes’ to your school.”

Zcruit’s platform was built on the idea of plugging details from a prospect’s athletic, academic, geographic and social profile into an algorithm that then customizes that data to fit a program’s needs and assigns each prospect a “Z-score” that reflects the likelihood of that player committing to your school. The higher a prospect’s Z-score, the better the odds you have of bagging that prospect.

Some of the material Zcruit uses is in the public domain; other elements have been provided by partner companies or schools who have signed on. Client schools that follow a specific player, for example, will receive notifications when other programs offer that player, while also receiving data from the algorithm as to how a rival offer could impact the likelihood of him committing to your program.

It is a sophisticated platform rooted in common sense: If a kid is known to be weighing offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan, Zcruit’s algorithm will not recommend that player to, say, Southern Illinois. You fish where they’re most likely to bite.

“Whether [prospects] are getting exploited is up for interpretation,” said Branstad, whose company uses a different algorithm — based on a prospect’s combine and track-and-field statistics — to project how a player compares, athletically, within a database that features more than 40,000 current and former NFL and college players.

“I’m seeing more and more high school coaches going out of their way to gather information and getting that info out there. At least it’s from a verified coach; it’s from a verified source. We see that more with coaches — if it’s spring or summer, they’re doing their own camps, showcase camps, at the high schools now. We see it with other sports, too. I wouldn’t call it exploitation because it’s just proliferated so much. Yeah, there are times that maybe different sources cross the line and maybe put out too much information.

From left to right: Sebastian Frohm, Jake Schumaker, Ian Thorp, Ben Weiss and Alex Cohen at Northwestern University’s Ryan Fieldhouse. (Photo courtesy Zcruit)

“Is it invasive? If these [recruiting] services call these kids all hours of the day — ‘How was your visit? Where are you going to go?’ — I think that’s more invasive than the stats.”

And that Fitbit on your wrist wasn’t exactly designed to be your pal. When a coach has a student-athlete wear a piece of tech to class, or even to bed, where does that data end up? Who can access it, legally or otherwise? What kind of safeguards are in place to protect pro, college and prep athletes who leave a trail of digital bread crumbs behind them, every day, whether they realize it or not?

“Parents would be wise to treat their children’s data like they would their own,” noted Kristy Gale, a sports data expert and CEO of the Hypergolic consulting practice. “They need to control who it’s passed to.

“First of all, they need to ask questions, if they’re physician’s records, health records, anything reflecting past performances. If that child is in an elite soccer club, if they want them to use wearables and institute a training regimen using wearable tech, the parents need to ask questions. ‘Who are the custodians of the data?’ And make it clear who that is.”

“Parents would be wise to treat their children’s data like they would their own. They need to control who it’s passed to." - Kristy Gale, sports data expert and CEO of Hypergolic consulting practice

Michigan’s athletic department signed a deal in 2016 with Nike that grants the apparel giant a broad swath for how biometric data collected from student-athletes could later be used. Fast forward to May when the NCAA announced it had entered into a 10-year partnership with Genius Sports, a company based in the United Kingdom, for the purposes of centralizing — and monetizing — those same student-athletes’ statistics. Schools will receive Genius Sports software for free for three years, while media outlets and web sites will have to pay for the data collected. Some have postulated that the NCAA’s new data gambit could be the first brick laid on a path that leads to selling such data to gambling-related companies.

Gale’s advice in the meantime?

Read the fine print, twice over. Three times, even, just to be sure.

“The second thing is these waivers,” said Gale, who has been following sports data rights matters for the last three-and-a-half years and provides consulting to teams, leagues, and parents. “Make sure there is an authorization, and there is a release for their children’s data. And make sure they read it carefully and not just sign it [first]. When they look at waivers, usually, it’s very broad. It says, ‘You’re giving us your child’s data for “X” and we have it in perpetuity, so we’re never liable.’

“And the third thing to think about is that if that data got out to college recruiters, college scouts, pro scouts and recruiters, what could the potential negative impact of that data be?

“If your son is playing baseball and he’s a pitcher and he’s injury-prone, you have to consider the downside risk. If he has a pervasive risk of injury that keeps getting aggravated, what will that to do to his career? Will shorten it, will he get ‘X’ amount of fewer dollars?”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) was set up to create baseline privacy protection for educational data. Under general FERPA guidelines, schools must have written permission from a parent or student in order to release information from that student’s education records. The definition of education records was expanded to include biometric data as personally identifiable information.

Yet the proliferation of demand in new markets — fantasy sports a decade ago, legalized sports betting now — persuaded some states to push for more safeguards. In 2008, Illinois passed the country’s first biometric privacy law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which made it against the law for private entities to store, collect or use biometric data without the individual’s consent first.

California enacted the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, or SOPIPA, in 2014. A study by the Data Quality Campaign found that 28 student data privacy bills were signed into law in 20 states during the 2014 legislative session.

A year later, Forbes.com reported that $420 million in pitchers’ salaries were wasted on the disabled list, stints that could be traced to arm injuries that new technology and new data are designed to project. And, from the perspective of Major League Baseball management, mitigate.

“If you want to play in the majors, they’re going to get that information from you,” Gale said. “Up to that point, try to control it. Manage it wisely so it isn’t abused. Or misused.”

“I don’t think it’s going to go too Big Brother-y. The point is really helping schools in the recruiting process zero in on the right kids, and help these coaches spend more time with their families and spend more time recruiting the right guys." - Bob Weiss, founder and CEO of Zcruit

Because now that the train has left the station, it’s only going to keep gathering speed.

As much as college recruiters love context, they love tangible results more. Before Northwestern let Zcruit guide their efforts, Weiss said, the Wildcats were landing roughly 20 percent of the players they had offered.

Using Zcruit’s algorithm, 96 percent of the prospects Weiss and his partners expected to sign with Northwestern eventually joined the Wildcats.

“Schools have people who have to check who are on kids’ Twitter accounts. Nothing we’re really doing is too groundbreaking,” Weiss said of Zcruit, which services more than 30 FBS or FCS schools, and was purchased by the Reigning Champs digital network in December 2017.

“It’s how to help people save time on stuff,” Weiss said. “I don’t think it’s going to go too Big Brother-y. The point is really helping schools in the recruiting process zero in on the right kids, and help these coaches spend more time with their families and spend more time recruiting the right guys.

“We’re working toward solving the problems of inefficiencies in recruiting, a lot of wasted time on both ends. It helps everyone to use data.”

Sean Keeler has written for several media outlets, including FOX Sports, The Guardian, American Sports Network, and Cox Media’s Land of 10 and SEC Country verticals. You can follow him on Twitter @SeanKeeler

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