Athletic recruiting: location is everything

Chances of high school athletes being scouted by top level colleges are highly dependent on socioeconomic status

By Brooke Leggat

The club system–in all it’s politicized glory– has slowly evolved to be at the heart of American youth sports. Earnest efforts to bring kids together in the name of sport and camaraderie has no doubt morphed into a more complex scene based on socioeconomic status and fueled by the era’s intensified college recruiting process. 

In the past, competitive sports have granted low income athletes a more affordable path to college. As the youth club sports scene grows in America, exposure to and success in the college recruiting process is increasingly tied to the networks that money can buy, rather than pure athletic talent. 

The average American family spends 2,292 dollars a year on their childrens’ sports. This type of spending opens the doors to better facilities, experienced coaches and more competitive play. Instantly, families not able to afford flashy club sport experiences are denied access to a central vein of college recruiting. 

Such a chasm of opportunity cost is particularly visible in Oregon, as the state’s population ranges from tightly packed and affluent Portland suburbs to more rural blue-collar communities such as Baker City, Oregon or the Dalles. 

In 2017, it was found that colleges and universities tended to recruit where the average family income was 100,000 dollars or more. Lower income communities–often a state’s most rural towns–are overlooked according to researchers at University of California, Los Angeles  and the University of Arizona.

This is not breaking news. The disparity in resources between rural and suburban populations has always been a factor in the career paths of individuals. The club sports scene further erodes any efforts to close the opportunity gap between the two socioeconomic worlds.

Star soccer player, Alli Davis, recently moved from Bend, Oregon to Portland suburb West Linn, in seek of better preparation for college soccer. Bend is by no means a low income town, but the three hour drive from Oregon’s most populous area speaks for the problem of isolation. In previous years, Davis and her family made the commute to the greater Portland area at least once a week so that Davis could practice with her travel team, the Portland Thorns Academy.

“It was a hard transition” Davis said, “But it’s what I had to do to be able to further my soccer career.”

Davis has nothing but gratitude for her time spent on the local soccer club, Bend Timbers, and playing for the school’s varsity team, but she realized her location, was not going to help her reach her full potential as a player and college recruit.  

Davis’ pure talent on the field has no doubt paid off, but playing against the backdrop of a city with an expansive soccer network was key to her college exposure. In other words, it is not always what you know, it is who you know. 

“It’s hard to get exposure from a small town like Bend, whereas in Portland I have been given so many more opportunities to be seen by colleges,” Davis said.

Davis’ experience with more exposure, is not free of a price tag. The commute to practice, equipment needs, living in proximity to fields and travel all add up.

 “We are lucky enough to be able to afford it” Alli said. “I wouldn’t say the club pays for all of [our costs], it only pays for what is happening within the team, but outside of seasonal games, players and their families need to pay for showcases, which is where players get the most exposure to college coaches.”

As access to high level athletics becomes more expensive, the nation has seen a significant drop in involvement of kids in rural towns. On the flip side, wealthier families only become more involved in academies and travel teams according to a 2018 Aspen Institute report.

According to the same report, the increase in club sport participation over the last decade is driven by the want for athletic based college scholarships. 

Lapine High School’s Athletic Director Aaron Flack has years of experience with the dynamic of athletics in a rural community of Oregon.

“Our kids can’t afford club sports, that’s a huge disadvantage for us, especially with team sports. A lot of our kids don’t have access to play travel ball or club volleyball,” Flack said. Lapine is about a 40 minute drive from Bend and has a population of about 1,700. 

“It is harder with team sports since we are 3A [division], you really need to dominate at this level to get noticed by a Division 1 school,” Flack said. 

Though there is an immense disadvantage for athletes in Lapine who dream of playing team sports at the next level, there is an upside; student athletes in rural towns have more freedom to participate in several sports throughout the school year. In turn, they are more well-rounded athletes.

“With a smaller school, you have to have that participation, with bigger schools you’ve got some of those kids that just specialize in one, that’s how they get seen at those D1 levels,” Flack said.  

Technology has helped equalize the recruiting process in some ways. Recruiting organizations such as the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA), allows athletes to build a recruiting profile and coaches to search for profiles based on their recruiting needs. Unfortunately, NCSA does not help much in terms of athletes in low income households; membership packages rang from 500 to 2,000 dollars 

“It makes sense that coaches recruit in metropolitan areas because the population guarantees a bigger return on their investment,” Nationally recognized high school track coach Dave Turnbull said. “But also, talent is talent and that can be shown in video clips.” 

The world of fancy academy sports will always have momentum in the recruiting process. Perhaps the idea of well roundedness, a unique aspect of small town sports, can greater influence the decisions of college coaches. 

In 2018, 71 percent of men playing Division I football were multi sport athletes in high school according to USA today. In running, the numbers were even higher as 87 percent of female athletes and 91 percent of male athletes did more than one high school sports. Clearly, success doesn’t have to stem from the specialization and vetting process so central to club sports.

Rather than just recruiting high school athletes who have been filtered through an extravagant club program, college coaches should look to unlock the pure athletic talent that goes unnoticed in low income, rural communities.

Diversity in the recruitment process should be mandatory. University athletic departments could set aside a budget for coaches to travel to more rural communities in order to reach less privileged corners of the country. 

College coaches are going to pick student-athletes based on their potential contribution to the team, but that doesn’t mean the search for those individuals has to be partial to wealthy areas. 

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, rural students are already less likely to attend college than their suburban counterparts by about 13 percent. With low income and rural populations, this statistic is perpetuated as college is often a question of “if” rather than “where”. With this mindset, and talented student-athletes may not even be aware of the opportunities that await them in a more competitive athletic environment. College coaches should be encouraged or incentivized to diversify their recruiting pools.

Raw talent and passion for a sport is one thing money can’t buy.  If college recruiting continues to marginalize vast numbers of rural student-athletes, the consequence is double sided. Not only are college athletic programs widening the chasm of athletic opportunity between suburban and rural worlds; they are overlooking untapped potential.

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