Guest contribution from Neil Stratton of InsideTheLeague.com and Executive DIrector of the ’08 Hula Bowl.
One question I get repeatedly, from newly certified agent to seasoned veteran, is: How do I get my kid into a college football all-star game? The question comes up so frequently that when I was invited by Darren to address this, I was happy to oblige.
The following are some general thoughts on the all-star selection process as well as a game-by-game breakdown of the three remaining ‘major’ all-star games in the wake of the Hula Bowl’s demise.
A brief overview
- How many players? The Senior Bowl and Shrine Game feature two 50-man rosters each, while the Texas vs. The Nation game usually has two 60-man rosters.
- When do they start getting invites? Typically, the Shrine Game invites its players first, while the Senior Bowl and Hula Bowl gradually invite players as the fall progresses. The Shrine Game notifies players of ‘watch list’ status in late summer/early fall, which can at times be taken as an official invite, though it’s not.
- When is the process complete? In many cases, invitations are being made days before players are set to report, and there are often players lost due to injury that must be replaced. For that reason, it’s important for a player rep to be regularly in contact with each game’s personnel director.
- How do I contact the games? There is contact information on the Web sites of the Shrine Game and the Texas vs. The Nation contest. The Senior Bowl’s Executive Director only communicates with a select number of agents.
- What if I get told ‘no’? Don’t give up. Always be respectful, always be patient, but continue to check in with the personnel directors for games. Both emails and phone calls are good ways to stay in touch. The slot that was filled yesterday might be open today, and often the player that is less desirable but easier to reach gets selected.
- As an agent, what expenses should I expect? The player’s travel, food, lodging and uniform/basic apparel are provided. Usually, you will only have to come out of pocket for the expenses you incur if you choose to attend the game/practices. However, keep in mind that most games run on very limited budgets, and agents who can afford to get their guy to the game, especially last-minute (when plane fare costs the most), can sometimes earn a slot where there would not have been one. It’s worth absorbing some minimal costs (new clothes if baggage is lost; an airline reservation change fee if your player has to leave earlier than scheduled; Fed Ex costs if your player doesn’t want to take his own pads back to school) to get your client in front of NFL eyes.
- What kind of access can I expect during game week? Usually, you will have the opportunity to rent a room at the official hotel, you will be able to attend practices, and you will have access to your client whenever he’s not taking part in an all-star function. If you choose to stay for the game, it’s rarely a problem to get tickets, and often your player can get you comps. Usually, you will NOT get access to weigh-ins, to the locker rooms, or to the coaches during game week. There will likely be scouts-only functions like lunches or dinners you might not be able to attend. But you will have plenty of opportunities to interact with your client. Agents normally take their clients out to dinner some time during the week and that’s never a problem, either, as long as it doesn’t conflict with an official game function.
Senior Bowl: The Senior Bowl is the unquestioned leader among the top three all-star games. It’s not the most ‘senior’ of the games nor does it have the most tradition, but it’s certainly the one favored by the league given its affiliation with the NFL. Executive Director Steve Hale assembles the rosters with the help of NFL scouts and executives.
The Senior Bowl gets the best players for a few reasons. One, the game is the only one staffed by active NFL teams (one takes the North, and one takes the South), and traditionally, those two teams select a high number of Senior Bowl players (from both rosters) because they’ve made an indelible impression. It also helps to promulgate the game’s image as the ‘official’ game of the NFL draft, and the one you must attend if you want to be selected. Usually, about 85-90 percent of its players get drafted and 95 percent go to NFL camps.
Second, it easily has the biggest budget. The Senior Bowl is the only game that has been continuously sponsored by corporate America for the last four or five years, and that’s because it carries the NFL brand. Also, the game doesn’t have to worry about a time-buy on a big network because it has wisely contracted with the NFL Network, which has considerably less reach into the marketplace, but also doesn’t charge an “advertising” fee for three-and-a-half hours of programming at a six-figure rate. This is a major, major, major consideration. It’s also the showpiece of the City of Mobile, almost a Super Bowl for the town. All the movers and shakers of the town are part of the nightly dinners at the team hotel, so there is never a shortage of local support at the ticket office or when it comes to general needs and resources (transportation, goodie bags, etc.).
Third, the game is the unofficial ‘convention site’ for people in the industry. It’s the only game that gets every team represented, every year, with the biggest team contingent. It’s not unusual to see a team’s GM, head coach, and all its area scouts in the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Tuesday or Wednesday. What’s more, the game is the job marketplace for out-of-work coaches seeking to get back into the game, or for college coaches trying to move to a higher level. On top of that, hundreds of agents, financial advisers, marketers, draft ‘experts’ and media, and other league types and would-be league types are part of the throng. For the most part, the crowd moves en masse, starting in the lobby of the team hotel, moving to Ladd-Peebles for morning practice, descending on Mobile’s eating establishments for lunch, returning to Ladd for the afternoon practice, then spending the evening back at the team hotel for the nightly lavish buffets sponsored by the game. Often, players are selected far higher than they would have if they hadn’t played in Mobile because so many decision-makers are on hand, in person. If you’re into seeing high-profile NFL types, the best place to be is Mobile in mid-January.
Fortunately, access is rather easy to gain if you play by the rules, applying in advance through the proper channels, and conducting yourself professionally once you are credentialed. The weigh-in on Monday morning is getting tougher to gain entry to, but practices aren’t; if you’re credentialed, you get access to one side of Ladd, but even if you’re not, you can still gain access to the other side, and often this is the area where many coaches and scouts like to sit because they are less likely to get ‘accosted’ by an agent trying to market his player, or a job-seeker.
The people that run the game are professionals, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. They also have a substantial number of staff members to help out, and for the most part, they work in concert to get things done very efficiently. For all these reasons, the Senior Bowl is in a class by itself.
Shrine Game: The Shrine Game is still standing admirably as the undisputed No. 2 all-star contest, but it’s on far shakier ground financially than the Senior Bowl, due to the enormous challenges that face college all-star games in today’s programming climate. Though the game has a very noble cause and is well-organized, it has been played in five venues and three cities in the last six years. It is important to note that the NFL does not provide any assistance to any games except the Senior Bowl, but for a per-team fee on the order of $300-$400 paid by each NFL franchise that sends scouting contingents.
The game serves as a fundraiser for Shrine Hospitals all over the country, and used to be run primarily by the Shriners of the San Francisco Bay Area. However, generational changes in the Shriners there left the game more to the national Shrine organization, which took on the challenge of running the game with the help of several coaches who sit on the advisory board and assist in the selection of players for the game.
The number of former coaches who sit on the board, in addition to full-time employees Jack Hart (the Executive Director) and William Homer (Director of Personnel and Operations), leads to a rather byzantine structure for choosing players. It’s a little harder to get answers on the status of specific players because so many men factor into the decisions.
There are other reasons that the Shrine Game is a little tricky when it comes to soliciting invitations for players. For one, the game is the only one that selects a formal ‘watch list’ for prospective players. Invitations tend to come strictly from this list, and if a player isn’t on this list (which is quite expansive), he is essentially a non-entity for the purposes of the Shrine Game. Two, because ticket sales are critical to fundraising, the game leans very heavily toward ‘big-helmet’ players, i.e., players from BCS schools that are more recognizable to potential ticket-buyers. Three, players from Texas, and especially the Houston area, get preference (again, ticket sales). Finally, and most importantly, the Shrine Game sends out invitations early in the season to the very best players. The problem is that most of these players, because they are elite, will consider only playing in the Senior Bowl (if even that game). However, because this is a ‘bird in the hand,’ they won’t decline their Shrine invitations until they are officially invited to Mobile. In many cases, this doesn’t take place until December (or even January) for more than half of the players on the invitation list. That means that these spots are held a long time for players who will never take them.
With all this said, if you can reach Hart of Homer, they will usually give you a good handle on where in the pecking order a specific player stands. Contact information can be found on the game’s Web site.
Texas vs. The Nation: The Western Refining Texas vs. The Nation Challenge is entering its third year in 2009. Though younger than the other two games, it is the unquestioned No. 3 game with the cancellation of the Hula Bowl, and will get a substantially better class of players this year.
The game tends to take a greater number of players than the other two (about 115-120, whereas the Senior and Hula take around 100), which gives it great appeal, and has gotten solid coverage by NFL scouts despite the fact that it hasn’t had supremely talented rosters.
The good news for player representatives is that John Murphy, who handles personnel for the game, is the one person who makes the decisions, and he’s reasonably accessible via email or phone. He’s worked with several games and knows the drill.
One other note: traditionally, the No. 3 game fills up more quickly than the other two games because players quickly accept their invitations so as to have something to fall back on. However, as the ‘dominoes fall’ and the games ahead of the No. 3 game fill up, openings appear that have to be filled. This means that the roster is almost always in flux as the game draws nearer, and provides opportunities to the agent who hustles and is persistent.
The failure of the Hula Bowl and Blue-Gray Classic: Two games that combined for over 120 years of history – and that used to be key parts of a scout’s calendar – have become defunct in the last five years. The Blue-Gray All-Star Classic was last played in 2003, and will likely never return; the loss of game sponsor Kelley Tires was fatal. The Hula Bowl, which probably has the most impressive all-time roster, also struggled and failed after losing Hooters as a sponsor; last year’s game is more than likely its last.
Their collapse is a testament to the shifting economic model of college all-star contests, which used to rely on the interest generated by college football fans eager to see obscure players. With the prevalence of college football on television today, that interest has died to a great degree, and as ratings and gate returns have decreased, the games’ attraction to sponsors has waned.