Business

High school football combines are raising profits and eyebrows

Kyle McKeown, Price Litton and Christian Lowder hope to play college football. So in May, the Weddington High students went to Columbia to participate in a combine. They showed recruiters how fast they can run 40 yards, how high and far they can jump, and how agile they are. Organizers also measured their height, weight and wingspan.

The trio, who as freshmen played on the Weddington junior varsity last fall, were among 55 freshmen at the combine, one of 44 that New Jersey-based Schuman Sports ran for eighth- through 10th-graders nationally this year.

And with North Carolina's high school football season ending Friday for a lot of players, many with an eye on being recruited will go to combines during the upcoming off-season. Such events used to be reserved for seniors, then juniors, too. But as college recruiters have started to target younger athletes, combines are now available for kids as young as middle-schoolers.

That's one factor driving rapid growth in the high school football combine business. An industry of dozens of companies see themselves as avenues for teenage athletes to exhibit their skills to recruiters. They bring in revenue by charging those athletes and contracting with sponsors who want to tap into the teen market.

One organizer estimated it's a nine-figure industry nationally, saying it grew by 20 percent annually from 2003 to 2006 and 40 percent each of the last two years. That includes VTO Sports, a new Charlotte company that runs an annual combine and camps to prepare athletes for combines.

Many speak highly of the industry, saying it helps kids land college scholarships and gives them a new outlet for competition.

But some coaches, parents and organizers urge caution. They say some companies are exploitative, raising unrealistic hopes for eager kids dreaming of scholarships. And they question why sponsors are involved.

College coaches consider many factors when recruiting players, including their combine data.

Most combines are modeled after the NFL Scouting Combine held in Indianapolis every February, when college players strut their stuff for pro scouts. Players' speed, agility, strength and other attributes are evaluated. Most are scheduled in the spring. Organizers promise to post results on their Web sites and share them with recruiters.

There are at least 600 national, regional and local circuits, up from 120-140 five years ago, says Andy Bark, who organized combines for two decades. They have spread to amateur lacrosse, baseball and softball; still, football is king.

Demand is fueled by athletes' desires for scholarships, competition and respect. It's also a product of the increasing media coverage and attention paid to high school sports.

The first high school combines were 20 years ago in California. The point then was to help kids get noticed by recruiters, Bark says.

The point now is often to do that while making money for organizers and sponsors. Some combines rely on participation fees and sponsors for revenue, others only on sponsors.

Organizers and sponsors rarely profit from combines directly, they say (none agreed to disclose profits). They consider them complementary ventures.

Take Rivals.com. The 10-year-old company, purchased by Yahoo! last year, specializes in covering recruiting. It co-sponsors combines.

“Access to those camps is an important facet of our coverage,” says Rivals CEO Bobby Burton. “You get to evaluate players, you get photos of them, you get video, you can interview them.”

Rivals co-sponsors some events with Nike, one of several large companies to get into the combine market recently. Consider these other developments:

ESPN this year bought StudentSports Inc., which organized combines. ESPN wants new TV and online content. Nike will sponsor the old StudentSports combines, now free events directed by an ESPN division.

Nike bought SPARQ, a Portland, Ore., company. SPARQ tests are offered at many combines and are touted as accurate measurements of a player's athleticism.

Under Armour, a sports apparel and footwear company, co-sponsored combines with recruiting news service Scout.com several weekends last spring. Litton and Weddington teammate Anthony Boone, for example, got T-shirts, shorts, skull caps and socks at Under Armour's Charlotte combine.

As recently as a few years ago, Charlotte didn't host any major combines. This year, Schuman, Scout.com and Rivals.com circuits stopped here. VTO Sports also ran an event.

Such developments have stimulated the industry's growth. Participation in Schuman Sports combines increased threefold each year since the first batch in 2005, founder David Schuman says.

Velocity Sports Performance, a training center in south Charlotte, hosted two free combines on a Saturday afternoon in March. Nike sponsored them.

Here's what they looked like: A few dozen teens in sweat-soaked compression T-shirts, shorts and cross-trainers rotated between a small football field and track. On the field, trainers in Nike T-shirts led them through drills such as sideways sprints between cones.

Some athletes were there to prepare for future combines. “It's just like doing schoolwork,” said Antwan Campbell, then a junior safety at West Forsyth High. “You've got to know what you've got to get better at.”

Others hoped to post good numbers and earn attention from recruiters.

Anthony Hooks Jr. of Steele Creek, now a senior defensive back at Olympic High, planned to attend a combine in April as well. “We want to get him exposed as much as we can,” said his father, Anthony Sr.

In the competitive chase for a college football scholarship, combines have become a necessity in the minds of many players and parents. They can help, but that thinking can make them vulnerable because the industry is not closely monitored. Sources said many combine results never get to recruiters, for example, because organizers don't send them.

“There's people who are out there to help the kids and ones that are out there just trying to make money,” says Jed Hartigan, a Velocity trainer. “I've had kids (he trained) fly out to California and post great numbers and never hear anything …There are people out there who are trying to (con) these kids.”

Other kids are manipulated to come, says Billy Napier, Clemson's recruiting coordinator. “They want to play in All-Star games, and people who dictate the rosters are at the combines,” he says. “Recruiting services use it as leverage to get kids to come to combines.”

Some questioned why sponsors are involved. The National Athletic Testing System, an American Football Coaches Association initiative, conducts athleticism evaluations in private and sends results to recruiters.

“No TV crews, no sponsors, no audience,” says director of development Marty Rauch. “When you have a sponsor, you're beholden to the sponsor. We're not promoting a product or service. We're just trying to provide accurate data.”

The NCAA has enacted bylaws in three straight years to address combines. The most recent rule, adopted in March, banned Division I football coaches from attending and D-I schools from hosting them.

The new NCAA rule initially hurt the combine business. VTO, for example, canceled one in June because it was unwise to expose players to just Division II and III coaches, said co-founder Terence Lawshe. But business has bounced back.

The Internet provides easy mass promotion, Napier says. In addition, college coaches read the recruiting sites, and the combines give them more accurate data on potential recruits.

Finally, there's the competition factor.

“You're only going to play 10, 12 games of high school football a year on average and stay mostly in Charlotte,” says Burton, the Rivals CEO. “By going to camps, you're going to see kids from S.C., kids from southern Virginia…

“Ultimately, athletics is about competition and kids today, they want to be the best. So they get out and compete.”

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