Websites as Help in the Recruiting Process: An Analysis of NCAA Women’s Cross Country Programs

Abstract

Universities are beginning to explore the Internet as one avenue for recruiting student-athletes, an avenue of potential use in nearly every phase of the process (Hornbuckle, 2001). Given the difficulty of recruiting for nonrevenue sports, as well as the concerns of NCAA divisions that have little or no recruiting budget, use of the World Wide Web for recruiting may hold great importance (Hornbuckle, 2001; Walsh, 1997). The purpose of this research was (a) to determine what content is featured on websites maintained by NCAA women’s cross country programs, (b) to observe any differences between NCAA divisions as to the frequency of exhibiting content, and (c) to determine areas that could be strengthened to enhance recruiting potential. A content analysis was used to analyze randomly sampled NCAA women’s cross country websites (N = 108). In general, it was found that the sites provided basic information that might be of interest to recruits, such as information about the coach and a means to submit personal information to the coach. Few sites included coaching philosophy, highlighted individual athletes, or contained photo albums, all relevant information that might be of interest to potential recruits.

Websites as Help in the Recruiting Process: An Analysis of NCAA Women’s Cross Country Programs

Recruiting potential student-athletes represents an important component of collegiate athletics. For students, the would-be recruits, “selecting a college is a time-consuming and difficult process” (Kirk & Kirk, 1993, p. 55). This process, at least for student-athletes, involves the consideration of several factors, including but not limited to a school’s geographic location, whether it is urban or rural, size of student population, academic and athletic reputations, and graduation rates, both for all student-athletes and for student-athletes in the sport of interest only (Kirk & Kirk, 1993). Students who wish to be recruited must sift through a great deal of information, often presented with clear bias. As Caryer (1996) notes,

If the student just listens to the stories, recruiting can be overwhelming; if he [she] actively seeks specific information needed to decide how to reach his [her] goals, the coaches tell him what he needs to know rather than a lot of impressive, but irrelevant stuff. (p. 13)

This highlights the importance of athletic departments presenting information for potential recruits in an efficient yet pleasing manner.

From the perspective of a coach, the recruiting process takes on greater importance with each passing year. According to Klenosky, Templin, and Troutman (2001), “Universities allocate a large portion of their athletic department funds each year for recruiting top student-athletes” (p. 95). Bill Conley, a former recruiting coordinator for football at Ohio State University, states (Caryer, 1996) that

Recruiting is the most important job a college coach has. The X’s and O’s are pretty much the same around the country, but if your X’s and O’s are bigger, faster and stronger, you have a better chance of being successful. (p. 31)

Of course, the same concept applies to other sports, such as basketball, soccer, and cross country. Coaches spend a great deal of time and money identifying recruits, maintaining contact with them, and convincing them to commit to a particular university. Efficiency of this work can perhaps be improved via technology, since, according to Hornbuckle (2001), “Much of this process can be done on the Internet by having an exceptional presence on the World Wide Web” (p. 11).

The Internet provides colleges and universities with an incredible method for reaching fans and potential recruits. According to Delpy and Bosetti (1998), “This media presents an unparalleled opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide at a fraction of traditional advertising costs” (p. 21). Further, “High school athletes today want instant access to collegiate program information in everything from program history to whether the school fields a men’s team or not” (Hornbuckle, 2001, p. 10). For providing instant access to information at a low cost, there is no better means than an effective website.

Further, Hornbuckle (2001) states, “Many athletic departments already use the Internet to assess potential recruits and determine factors that are most likely to influence their choice of school” (p. 29-30). The Internet can be used for nearly every phase of the recruiting process. Recruits can be identified via e-mail to scouts or high school coaches, and correspondence with a prospective athlete can also occur via e-mail. Potential athletes can often access a virtual tour of a campus, perhaps including training and competition facilities. Of course, the coach’s actual visit to the athlete cannot be replaced; however, for Division II, Division III, and junior college coaches, “this option may not be affordable–even more reason for these coaches to provide a first-class, usable website” (Hornbuckle, 2001, p. 12).

]Method[

The present researchers were guided by three research goals, as follows:

1. Determine the specific features (content) included on websites promoting women’s cross country programs at NCAA schools.

2. Determine any differences among NCAA divisions (I, II, III) in terms of website content provided and frequency with which such content is exhibited.

3. Make recommendations for improving websites’ function as aids in the recruiting process.

The research comprises a quantitative, descriptive analysis of 108 women’s cross country websites. Using a random number generator, 36 schools in each of the three NCAA divisions were randomly selected. In selecting 36 schools,  a sample was generated that represented at least 10% of all programs at each division level. Division III had the largest number of participating schools (357).

Analysis included obtaining frequency scores by each feature, overall, and by division. These scores are presented in Table 1 as the percentage of sites containing each website feature, both in each division and overall.

]Results[

As a whole, this examination revealed that colleges and universities create websites for women’s cross country that serve several primary functions. The sites contained, for the most part, headline stories (61.11%), schedules (92.59%), rosters (86.11%), results (71.30%), biographical information about the coach (70.37%), a photo of the coach (62.03%), and contact information for the coach (e-mail address, 75.92%; e-mail link, 73.15%; phone number, 62.96%). The presence of information forms for prospective athletes on over half of the sites (56.48%) supports the belief that many college and university administrators view their website as an important tool in the recruiting process. Further, the vast majority of sites that featured prospective-athlete information forms allowed them to be electronically transferred to the coach. Of 61 schools whose websites provided such prospective-athlete forms, 56 allowed them to be electronically transferred, while only 5 expected them to be mailed.

Beyond the components just described, however, the examination revealed many of the websites to be sorely lacking. The school websites were found not to promote the individuals on a team, as frequency scores were low for (a) content concerning individual athletes’ performance records (12.96%); (b) biographies of individual athletes (19.44%); and (c) photos of individual athletes (17.59%). Moreover, few schools went so far as to include even a simple team photo (23.15%).

Surprisingly, given the attention paid by websites maintained by institutions in all three divisions to promotion of  their coaches, the philosophy of the program (10.19%) and the philosophy of the coach (1.85%) were almost completely absent.

]Recommendations[

It is clear from these results that many colleges and universities already see the Internet as an important point of interaction between the institution and recruits. This is evidenced by the fact that the women’s cross country program websites include letters to potential student-athletes, NCAA compliance information, and access to NCAA recruiting rules. Many sites also provide personal information forms that prospective student-athletes are invited to submit to coaches in hopes of beginning a recruiting process. Recognizing that use of the Internet for recruiting purposes is likely to continue to grow, there are a number of recommendations that can be made based on these results.

Since more than half of the schools allowed prospective athletes to electronically submit personal information, the few who still rely on “snail mail” to receive this information might be at a serious disadvantage, as prospects may not be inclined to take the time to print out the form, complete it, and put it in the mail. Furthermore, schools that neglect to provide any means for prospects to deliver personal information may be seriously hindering their recruiting process.

The literature reveals that information about the coach–especially as to the coach’s philosophy, goals, values, and style–is important to recruits (Cooper, 1996; Doyle & Gaeth, as cited in Klenosky, Templin, & Troutman, 2001). It is of interest, then, that so few of the total 108 sites viewed provided information about philosophy and that those that did offer it often limited it to the mission statement of the athletic department as a whole.

There is some potential for testimonials about a program and coach to be influential from a recruitment standpoint, yet testimonials appear to be underutilized to date, according to this research. Two Division III sites included athletes’ testimonials about their teams, while one team site included other coaches’ written endorsements of the team’s coach.

Prospective student-athletes are likely to be interested in who might be their teammates. Furthermore, recruits could conceivably have more interest in a program that clearly values and promotes its athletes as individuals. Schools in all three NCAA divisions studied could improve in this area, as their websites did not contain a great deal of information about individual athletes.

Division II and Division III institutions could furthermore do a better job of updating the headline stories  on their websites. Regular updates give potential recruits a reason to revisit a site repeatedly, allowing them to assess the reputation of the team in an ongoing process.The connection represented in repeated visits to a website may help keep a school in the recruit’s mind over extended periods. Offering e-mailed updates of team progress through the season, as well as maintaining a “heritage” page and archived and current results and records, may be of further use in presenting a team’s reputation to site visitors.

Many of the university websites examined provided information about athletic facilities like the football stadium or basketball arena. Few, however, included information about the home cross country course. The information would not be difficult to include, and recruits would very likely be interested in the venues in which they would train and compete.

In an era of visual learners (Lester, 2000), pictures may go a long way toward impressing a recruit. Unfortunately, in all three NCAA divisions studied, most sites failed to provide a photo album or even a team picture. Digital cameras, typically available through athletic departments, could facilitate this process quite easily. Enlargeable thumbnail pictures would be helpful in decreasing downloading time.

To be sure, the Internet represents a powerful innovation that can play a major part in the recruiting process. This research is a first step in understanding, and thus in better utilizing, websites as aids in recruiting student-athletes. Future research could include analyses of websites for other sports, both revenue and nonrevenue. Further, it will be important to establish student-athletes as a source of data, inquiring of them which website features might most influence their college choices.

Table 1

Frequency of Website Features of NCAA Women’s Cross Country Programs, in Percentages


Division I
Division II
Division III
Overall
Headline Stories
91.67
38.89
52.78
61.11
Team/Program
Schedule
94.44
86.11
97.22
92.59
Roster
86.11
83.33
88.89
86.11
Results (current)
80.56
58.33
75.00
71.30
Team Photo
8.33
27.78
33.33
23.15
Program Philosophy
19.44
5.56
5.56
10.19
Heritage Page
16.67
2.78
16.67
12.04
Individual Information
Performance Records
25.00
2.78
11.11
12.96
Biographical Sketch
44.44
5.56
8.33
19.44
Photo
33.33
13.89
5.56
17.59
Coach Information
Photo
69.44
47.22
69.44
62.03
Biographical Sketch
75.00
61.11
75.00
70.37
Coaching Philosophy
0.00
0.00
5.56
1.85
E-mail Address
86.11
61.11
80.56
75.93
E-mail Link
86.11
58.33
75.00
73.15
Phone Number
69.44
55.56
63.89
62.96
Photo Album
19.44
19.44
8.33
15.74
Archive
Headline Stories
58.33
16.67
13.89
29.63
Record Book
36.11
8.33
30.56
25.00
Rosters 25.00 13.99 5.56 14.81
Results 61.11 33.33 30.56 41.67
Prospective Athletes
Letter to Prospective Athletes 41.67 8.33 13.89 29.63
Personal Information Form 63.89 33.33 72.22 56.48
Electronically Transferred
Personal Information Form
52.78 30.56 72.22 51.85
NCAA Clearinghouse
Recruiting Rules Information 30.56 8.33 0.00 12.96
Compliance Information 33.33 2.78 2.78 12.96
Additional
Course Description 16.67 0.00 11.11 9.26
Map to Course 5.56 0.00 2.78 2.78
Course Records List
5.56
2.78
0.00
2.78
Training Venues Information 8.33 0.00 5.56 4.63
Camps/Clinics Information 25.00 13.89 0.00 12.96
Offer E-mail Updates 36.11 2.78 8.33 15.74
Listing of Alumni Bios 2.78 0.00 0.00 0.93
Alumni Bio Questionnaire 2.78 0.00 0.00 0.93
Alumni E-mail List 5.56 0.00 0.00 1.85
Athletes’ Testimonials 0.00 0.00 5.56 1.85
Other Coaches’ Testimony
About the Coach
0.00 0.00 2.78 0.93
University Quick Facts 11.11 11.11 25.00 15.74
Video Webcast of Meet 0.00 2.78 0.00 0.93
Coach Interviewed on Video 0.00 2.78 0.00 0.93

]References[

Caryer, L. (1996). The recruiting struggle: A handbook. Columbus, OH: Partners Book Distributing.

Cooper, K. (1996). What the basketball prospect wants to know about you! Coach and Athletic Director, 65(7), 24-26.

Delpy, L. A., & Bosetti, H. A. (1998). Sport management and marketing via the World Wide Web. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 7(1), 21-27.

Hornbuckle, V. (2001). An analysis of usability of women’s collegiate basketball Websites based on measurements of effectiveness, efficiency and appeal. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Northern Colorado.

Kirk, W. D., & Kirk, S. V. (Eds.). (1993). Student athletes: Shattering the myths and sharing the realities. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Klenosky, D. B., Templin, T. J., & Troutman, J. A. (2001). Recruiting student athletes: A means-end investigation of school-choice decision making. Journal of Sport Management, 15, 96-106.

Lester, P. M. (2000). Visual communication: Images with messages (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Walsh, J. (1997). Everything you need to know about college sports recruiting. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel.

]Author Note[

Peter S. Finley; Laura L. Finley