When Ron Whitcomb started working in college football nine years ago, he stuffed envelopes with blank VHS tapes for recruits to transfer their highlights. He visited school counselors to get copies of transcripts. And when he set out for an in-home visit, he loaded his car with brochures and thick media guides, toting thousands of glossy pages that detailed a beautiful campus and supportive community, hopeful that if he left a prospect enough pieces of paper, that recruit would want to commit to Old Dominion.
Today, Whitcomb pulls highlight reels from websites, calls counselors and has a transcript appear in his email inbox. When he makes the in-person pitch during a home visit, he brings no paper: iPad only, Whitcomb says. Yes, he needs to bring campus to the recruit’s couch—and there’s an app for that.
Technology has brought college athletics a dizzying number of new, swanky devices and practices, gadgets and formulas that increase performance and efficiency. And in recruiting, it’s made coaches’ lives a lot lighter—literally.
“It used to be, you talk to a kid on the phone, then you send him something in the mail,” Whitcomb says. “Now, he can look at the app, at all the updated stuff we have, on his iPad while we’re on the phone.”
In 2015, coaches recognize the need for technology in almost every aspect of their program. For Old Dominion and dozens of other teams across college football, one of those needs is met through a mobile app that prospects—and their parents, and even the everyday fan—can download to study teams and coaches. A handful of companies across the country offer some sort of mobile app for coaches, but many of them—like ARMS Software, based in Richmond, Va., and JumpForward, based in Chicago—are geared toward compliance solutions. In '09, JumpForward developed and launched a native mobile app that automatically logs coaches' calls to prospects, eliminating the need to track them with paper and pen. Compliance apps often send push notifications to coaches and administrators warning of potential NCAA violations, like if a coach is about to exceed his limit of phone calls.
Those are important, coaches say, and they’ve streamlined the compliance process. But for schools like Old Dominion, which want to sell a non-traditional program to prospects across the country, there’s Bluechip Athletic Solutions of Atlanta. With the recognition that everything one needs can be found on a phone, some schools have tasked in-house marketing administrators with creating a mobile app. But Bluechip has cornered the market on apps that offer high-quality information in a handheld device, packed with graphics and videos all customized to a particular school. Bluechip offers PanoViews, 360-degree videos and photos that allow users to explore campus and football facilities from hundreds of miles away. Mobile apps, according to the guys who use them daily, are game-changers.
Bluechip joined the market 10 years ago, signing just four clients in 2005. Now, it works with 74 institutions and has more than 100 contracts (some entire athletic departments have bought in, with schools like Ohio State boasting apps for football and men’s and women’s basketball), though its target is FBS schools.
The way Steve Kennedy, Bluechip’s co-founder, sees it, recruiting is just another form of sales: The product is a scholarship, the sales team is the coaching staff, the target market is teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 (millennials) plus their influencers (family and friends) and the competition is every other scholarship offer. Programs sell themselves; Bluechip merely helps “package their story, and supplement it with a mobile app,” says Kennedy, who no longer holds a management position at Bluechip but is still the senior advisor for sales.
“Websites are dying,” says Max Allen, the director of football new media at Iowa. “Social media has taken the place of websites—and millennials don’t know of information being delivered any other way.”
Like other schools in remote locations, “drop by” visits aren’t a reality at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are located in a flyover state, meaning recruits (and their parents) must be intentional in their decision to visit. That’s a challenge to which new Nebraska coach Mike Riley and his staff can relate. When they were at Oregon State, Riley and his staff brainstormed ways to differentiate themselves as they worked to sell Corvallis to prospects. “We always believe if we can get a kid on campus, we can get them to commit,” says Dan Van De Riet, Riley’s director of football operations first at Oregon State and now at Nebraska. “[At Oregon State] what we asked Bluechip was, ‘How do we bring that official visit experience on the road? How do we bring it to someone’s couch?’” Oregon State was a Bluechip client with Riley at the helm; with Riley at Nebraska, Bluechip is creating an app for the Cornhuskers.
Cost for an app and other Bluechip products—the PanoView, the augmented reality—can range from $5,000 to $100,000 or more depending on content a team wants. Creation starts with an on-campus “discovery meeting,” where Bluechip asks coaches what they need, and what they’re trying to accomplish. Kennedy describes it as the scene setter. “First we have to introduce the characters: people, places and things. Then we have to find, what are the differentiators? Why come play ball here? Then it’s about extracting the story and finding content; finding what journey the characters take.” Sometimes schools have the equipment to create high-quality content (typically video and photo) on their own. Other times Bluechip has to send in a team. Bluechip estimates that a customized app, like the ones Old Dominion and Iowa have, takes two to three months to create.
Schools use apps in different ways in the recruiting process. Two years ago Old Dominion was transitioning from the FCS to the FBS and Conference USA, and suddenly went from having some of the best facilities in the country at its level to lagging behind. The Monarchs have a plan for expansion, including a newer, bigger stadium, but needed a way to show it to recruits without lugging around boxes of blueprints. Enter Bluechip.
“I was at the coaches’ convention and happened to run into the Bluechip booth and was blown away at the content,” says Whitcomb, who was Old Dominion’s recruiting coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the time. “I just thought, ‘Hey, what better investment than to visually show these kids what’s to come?” The Monarchs’ app—which receives updates in the off-season, like the apps of most Bluechip clients—talks facilities and sells the surrounding area, with pictures of sun-soaked Virginia Beach and video highlighting downtown Norfolk.
Now the program’s offensive coordinator, Whitcomb says if you approach recruiting like sales, “the kid is the most intelligent customer in the room. He’s done the most research. Why? Because he’s on his phone. Parents can be blown away by something but kids are like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that—on my phone, on the app.’”
Apps can serve as a compact newsletter of sorts, too. When Tony Reno got hired as Yale’s head coach in January 2012, he was looking “for a better way to market our brand.” Every signing class under Reno has been recruited with the help of a Bluechip app, and it allows Yale alums to “keep current with what’s going on in our football family.” Asked if he anticipated tech guru being part of a head coach’s requirements, Reno laughs. “I think, being a head coach, you learn about a lot of responsibilities you don’t initially think about,” Reno says. “Getting an app done, it was at the forefront when we got here. It was, ‘We need this now.’”
Schools of all levels have bought in: Besides programs like Old Dominion and Yale, which hope to be up and coming in the college football landscape, longtime power Notre Dame counts itself as a Bluechip client. Bluechip worked with Florida under former coach Urban Meyer, and when Meyer landed at Ohio State in November 2011, he took Bluechip with him—and sold the company’s products to other Buckeyes head coach coaches and programs.
Bluechip believes its growth path is within NCAA Division I, II and III football, with FBS schools being the primary target. It helps to have a former coach on staff. Marc Lippens likes to joke that he had a “long and forgotten history” in football, both as a high school coach and then as college operations staffer, before joining Bluechip full-time in summer 2011. In February ’05 while working as “what we’d now call a director of player personnel” at Duke under former coach Ted Roof, Lippens saw a Bluechip presentation on campus. The hook was instant. “I was the first guy who said, ‘We need this product,” Lippens says. Now Bluechip’s director of products, Lippens's job is to ask and answer: What’s the next big thing?
He is unsure what recruiting technology will look like in 5-10 years, but believes it will be driven by NCAA compliance rules. And while Bluechip has established a footprint in this world, with the booming business of college football it's likely that other tech companies will soon create apps. The next step, Lippens says, is to get even more relationship-based. “The people who figure out how to personalize a message within the rules, those are the ones who are going to stay ahead.”
Of course, building an app doesn’t mean five-star recruits will be lined up at your door. Whitcomb says you can never diminish or undersell the tradition of programs like Alabama, Texas or Michigan. “You’re not gonna go from an average program to a great program just because you have an app,” he says.
Still, you can go from good to great with the help of a few big-time recruits. In 2015, it’s realistic to think that some of those big-time prospects could commit because they feel comfortable after studying a program.
And there’s a good chance they did all the reading on their phone.