College football recruiting has created an industry of its own

Can the star power of a star athlete be quantified?

Over the past three decades, several organizations have said yes and made a lot of money in return.

Millions of dollars are spent each year by die-hard college football fans on subscriptions to sites such as Rivals, ESPN Recruiting Nation and Fox Sports Next, which provide scouting and updates on the nation's top high school prospects.

And it's the demand from that fan base that has made recruiting coverage mainstream.

"It's created an entire industry," ESPN Recruiting Nation national analyst Jeremy Crabtree said. "There are a lot of people covering recruiting now because it's very serious. There is legitimate interest from a fan base. You hear from the serious fan out there that there are three seasons: football season, recruiting season and spring football season."

Just as there is one college program that can claim to be first on the field at the end of each season, one team claims a recruiting national championship in the off-season, thanks to these websites.

How that is determined is as clear as... well, mud.

In various ways, depending on the organization, the sum of the talent recruited by a school each year is quantified and listed in order. At the heart of this equation is the number of "stars" assigned to each recruit, from one to five, the highest being the cream of the crop.

How those stars are distributed is what makes each organization unique., now owned by Yahoo! Sports, is the patriarch of online recruiting coverage and has a database of recruit profiles that reflects its tenure. In the Rivals network, several analysts are assigned regions to scout and cover.

Several times throughout the year, those analysts meet to discuss the players they have seen, adding or subtracting stars and sorting out the top 100 prospects in each class.

For the most part, analysts are journalists with extensive backgrounds in recruiting coverage.

Rivals has recently invested much of its time and money into hosting combine-like camps for these prospects so they can be compared head-to-head.

Fox Sports Next works similarly, using eight national analysts to divvy stars to deserving athletes, updated monthly.

"We break down hours and hours of game film to go along with live evaluations in practices, games, camps and seven-on-sevens," Fox Sports Next national recruiting analyst Greg Powers said.

ESPN Recruiting Nation prides itself in a slightly different approach.

Scouting experts with previous experience playing either college or professional football maintain the rankings and scouting profiles of the recruits the site targets. Recruiting analysts across the country provide updates on the prospects. Updates include insight into which schools have the most interest from the athlete.

"Fans can log on to a player's page and see directly what we think their strengths and weaknesses are, so there is some correlation in why one kid is a three-star and one is a five-star or why this guy moved up or why this guy moved down," Crabtree said. "There's something more than just a star attached to a kid's name."

ESPN Recruiting Nation's scouting team is headed by Tom Luginbill, a former Georgia Tech quarterback and ACC rookie of the year.

Powers said the interest prospects have into where they are ranked can vary, but most know where they fall on every website.

For those who care, most will go to great lengths to see they are evaluated at their preferred level, Crabtree said.

"I've been a part of covering recruiting for 15-plus years," Crabtree said. "I've had parents threaten to sue me and the people I was working for at the time because their kid wasn't ranked high enough in their opinion. We've also had the families that will do anything they can to promote their kid and bend the truth a little bit."

However, as Crabtree, Powers and any Rivals writer knows, college coaches actively use these websites in some form or fashion.

"I know plenty of college coaches that are on our site on a daily basis to view updates and might find an under-the-radar kid that suddenly has a great senior season in middle-of-nowhere Texas and they'll start recruiting him from what they see on Recruiting Nation."

While most websites have a decent success rate in picking top prospects, some player's talent might not be realized until he reaches the college level.

Just ask three-star Johnny Manziel.

Travis L. Brown is the former editor of Purple Menace, the Rivals TCU website.

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