Just as the college basketball season is ending, LevelEdge.com has launched an online database intended to connect high school and junior college prospects with four-year institutions.
America's highly developed sports market has long been efficient in identifying blue chippers, but the new service hopes to appeal to lower-profile, "second-tier" students and schools.
It's a novel approach to a crowded field. Summer camps and scouting combines, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)-style junior programs, and broadly subscribed newsletters already surround the sometimes sordid recruiting process. Meanwhile, Web sites like Rivals.com have unearthed services like CoachT, devoted to high school hoops in Tennessee.
"The type of athlete that a leading Division I school gets, national-caliber type of athletes, probably wouldn't avail themselves to this type of service," said Tim Tessalone, sports information director at the University of Southern California. "These have been most helpful to athletes who aren't quite at that level and have trouble attracting attention."
It's no secret that college sports are big business. Rights to broadcast the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship, which enters its final stages this weekend, were recently awarded to the CBS network in an 11-year agreement worth some $6 billion, according to reports.
Each year university sports programs spend about $2 billion recruiting America's 10 million high school and junior college athletes, LevelEdge calculates. In 1997-98, Division I colleges awarded an average $2.2 million in full and partial scholarships to some 240 men and women athletes. Division II schools devoted an average of $615,000 to 150 students.
Most of the attention goes to the top prospects, everyone agrees.
Initially focusing on basketball, LevelEdge plans to add football, soccer and track by the end of the year and eventually cover 20 of the 56 men's and women's scholarship sports. Its core database product will profile athletes' performance history (career statistics, honors and so on) and academic qualifications.
Also offering resources for parents, coaches and recruiters, the company intends to profit from premium information services, advertising and sponsorships, and sales of related sporting goods, nutrition products and instructional videos. The company hopes to partner with sports camps and various high school and junior college governing bodies to boost the credibility of its statistical data as well as increase the size of its database.
To stay on the good side of the NCAA, which struggles to police big-time athletics according to a largely outdated amateur code, the company vows not to sell ads on its profile pages.
"There will be no Carpoint on our site, and we will not be doing anything with Autobytel," notes chief executive Lisa Henderson, once a marketing executive with software maker Autodesk.
LevelEdge also has taken pains to structure its profiles so that athletes without regular access to the same computer can make updates from any wired system. Lower-income students typically access the Internet from as many as five different machines, the company says.
The move underlines LevelEdge's more inclusive approach. Where basketball's Prepstars covers "several hundred" elite basketball players, according to publisher Dennis Wuycik, LevelEdge launched with more than 3,000 profiles.
By June, well-heeled LevelEdge will have received some $19 million in funding. Tennis star Billie Jean King serves as chair of the company, which has 30 employees and expects to soon open a Chapel Hill, N.C., office.