The ruckus surrounding satellite camps likely has some college football fans wondering “Is Jim Harbaugh really running football camps on Mars?” And who could blame them?
Let’s be clear. Jim Harbaugh did not invent satellite camps. He and other coaches, like Penn State’s James Franklin, have simply used NCAA rules that permit them to attend camps owned and run by other coaches, at universities and high schools, even when those camps are located far outside their respective states’ borders.
Few people understand the size of collegiate football camp operations or the NCAA rules that regulate them. While the business of camps has expanded greatly over the past 15 years, camps have largely been operated on campus and out of the general public’s sight. Over the past several years, some coaches traveled across their home states for a series of one-day camps. Attendance, however, was dwarfed by teams’ on-campus camp sessions.
Satellite camps are simply the next frontier. Like the 1849 Gold Rush, coaches are expanding their territory for prospecting.
So if there is no extraterrestrial connection to satellite camp, then why have football coaches, athletics directors and league commissioners spent so much time and energy arguing about them? Some of it is bluster. But other coaches have raised legitimate concerns. Nick Saban thinks satellite camps are the “Wild West.” Is he right? Right now, no one knows. By the end of this summer, however, we will learn which coaches will ride back onto campus wearing “white hats.”
— CollegeAD (@collegead) May 31, 2016
Who really benefits?
High school coaches and other organizers should reap the lion’s share of benefits from hosting college coaches at satellite camps. They will enroll more campers, collect more registration fees, promote their athletes and develop deeper relationships with high profile coaches like Jim Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh’s planned attendance at a June 8th camp hosted by Paramus (N.J.) Catholic caused the high school to cap participants at 600 athletes, 50% more than their original forecast of 400 athletes. That’s $24,000 in registration fees alone.
Paramus Catholic even managed to secure Gatorade and Adidas as paid sponsors. That’s more money for the high school coaches. I wonder what Phil Knight thinks since Michigan is a Nike school? Nothing strengthens a relationship with a high school program like a richer bottom line from camps (that can significantly supplement high school coaches’ regular salaries) and quality personal time with a college head coach.
The elevated role that coaches and others hosting satellite camp could play in recruiting appears to be one of Nick Saban’s biggest concerns. Reading between the lines of his recent comments, Saban is concerned that the college basketball recruiting model, where some AAU coaches and other influencers play a prominent role in the high school basketball athlete’s choice of colleges, will creep into football recruiting. The NCAA Division I Football Ad Hoc Recruiting Working Group (which began meeting in May) will be watching this closely.
Companies with strong sports brands (e.g., Gatorade, Nike) also benefit from a coach taking his show on the road. They understand that sports camps create captive audiences of 10-18 years olds, an important part of their target market. Since many of these brands already have existing relationships with college coaches, leveraging that connection with younger consumers makes sense.
Gatorade uses football camps to build brand loyalty and test new products.
Gatorade has a well-developed promotional program that provides free product (e.g., drink powder) and supplies (e.g., cups, coolers, tents, t-shirts) to football camps to ensure a visible presence. Gatorade also uses collegiate summer camps to gather camper data and test new flavors of its popular sports drink. Several years ago, Gatorade rolled out its G Series and distributed its recovery formula at camps, first as a drink and later as a chewable.
Campers arguably benefit when they can forgo travel (and related costs) to college campuses and still be seen by college coaches. In theory, this creates more opportunities for high school athletes to be discovered and evaluated.
Shouldn’t more satellite camps mean more campers? Better campers? While the number of campers attending satellite camp this summer will certainly grow, there is no guarantee that more highly-talented campers will attend. Why? There is a finite number of high school players who can play big-time college football. These players will likely have short, targeted lists of summer camps they will attend. Furthermore, most elite players are already known to the college coaches who have seen their game films, recruiting reports and talked with their high school coaches. Even college football coaches, if speaking candidly, would tell you they only meet a handful of genuine prospects at camps who were not already on their radar.
What will happen at satellite camps?
Many fans have seen the drills that N.F.L. teams employ at its annual combine. If television coverage of satellite camps was broadcast, viewers might expect to see campers running through some of the same drills. Should they? No. Would they? Probably.
Despite the NCAA rules that largely prohibit coaches from running, hosting or attending combines, summer camps, particularly those targeting upper classmen, regularly include drills and activities (e.g., 40 yard run, three cone drill, broad jump) that measure a camper’s “agility, flexibility, speed or strength.” Most coaches employ a “teach and test” approach that allows them to stay within the letter of NCAA rules. They do this by teaching campers how to properly complete these drills and then running the campers through the drills to assess proficiency. As to the spirit of the rule, the “teach and test” method is as close as coaches can get to an impermissible combine without calling it one.
It remains to be seen whether satellite camps will be a nightmare for athletics department compliance staff. The proliferation of satellite camps will provide the NCAA’s Football Recruiting Working Group a prime opportunity to reexamine camp outcomes. Coaches attending these camps would be well advised to review the traps for the unwary before they travel and have their compliance contact on speed dial. Or better yet, bring them along. The more, the merrier.
Mark Wilson, J.D., is an attorney and former college sports camp director. As managing director of Harrison Kent Advisors LLC, Wilson helps coaches and athletics departments improve their camp operations and create a durable competitive advantage for their camps.
Email him at email@example.com