Dealing with four or five star player rankings on recruiting networks, going on trips to play in games shown on ESPN and handling social media are just part of what the support staff at a big-time high school football program at a place like St. John Bosco has to grapple with every week and throughout the year. Go inside for this look at how this school tackles these issues and does it in a very positive way for its athletes.
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By Sam Dodge
LOS ANGELES – When St. John Bosco of Bellflower, the Salesian Catholic high school located in the south Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, hired Jason Negro in 2010 to coach the Braves’ football team, he needed to fix more than the on-field product.
After failing to make the playoffs in five straight seasons, the program lacked firm financial footing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red, Negro organized events such as parent golf tournaments to pool together enough funds for essentials such as equipment, coach salaries and basic travel costs.
In 2012, the Braves reached the CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division semifinals behind the arm of future elite UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who was just a sophomore that season. They were 12-0 and coming into focus in national rankings before losing to local rival Long Beach Poly.
Only two years after mediocrity, Negro formed a powerful team headlined by a future NFL quarterback in Rosen and complemented by future UCLA Bruin Jaleel Wadood and USC Trojan linemen Nico Falah and Damien Mama. Bosco’s 2013 team went all the way, finishing 16-0 and winning the CIF Open Division state title.
The rapid turnaround, and particularly these high-level players in turn, attracted national network television attention.
“ESPN contacted us in January or February of 2012,” Negro said, “to start negotiating a potential game against another nationally elite school.”
This game eventually became the Braves hosting Chandler (Ariz.) High School on ESPN’s Geico High School Football Showcase. Almost by accident, St. John Bosco entered the publicity business, becoming knee-deep in a high school recruiting world that transforms teenage football players into sports celebrities via television, online media and college programs.
ESPN launched ESPNU in 2004 to handle broadcasts for primarily college sports, but has been showing high school games since the first one in 2003 between De La Salle of Concord (Calif.), which was still in the midst of its national record 151-game win streak, and Evangel Christian of Shreveport, La. It’s common knowledge at De La Salle that the Spartans were the only team ESPN wanted to put on the air at the time to test whether high school games would have interest. They did and ESPN TV games have become a staple for ESPNU.
“It’s an extension of our college football footprint, for sure,” said Dan Margulies, senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU. “Viewers want to watch high school football for the future stars.”
In 2017 alone, ESPNU will highlight 26 teams across the country all season long. On Aug. 26, St. John Bosco traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. to face powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas.
That particular broadcast highlighted the individual recruiting rankings and college interests of the top players over much of the actual content of the game. Announcers fawned over how players such as Bosco junior Chris Steele just got a new scholarship offer, or how he’s the 47th-best prospect on the ESPN 300, a list compiled by ESPN’s player evaluation team.
The same went for St. Thomas Aquinas, where sons of former NFL stars Asante Samuel and Al Blades roamed the secondary, as ESPN talked extensively about their futures playing for renowned powerhouses Florida State and Miami, respectively.
“These games are just one pillar for promoting players,” Margulies said. “There’s the Under Armour game, where the best players nationally get to play on the main network, and then there’s Signing Day.”
National Signing Day is a full-day extravaganza where players announce their college decisions. Most of the time, ESPN streams footage of players such as current USC freshman wide receiver Joseph Lewis of Los Angeles Hawkins High simply donning a cardinal-and-gold hat to announce a collegiate intention.
Other times it’s more elaborate, such as when Westlake Village Oaks Christian quarterback Jimmy Clausen was filmed driving in a limousine in South Bend, Ind. in April 2006 to commit to Notre Dame.
Negro manages to rein in the hype machine.
“Our kids are so grounded,” he said. “We obviously want to promote them and get them noticed by schools, but I don’t worry about them getting distracted.”
Consumer interest in high school player recruitment fuels the media investment.
ESPN follows the model of Rivals.com, an online recruiting service that charges subscriptions for access to up-to-date information on high school prospects. Founded in 1998, Rivals now charges $100 annually for its content.
In addition to Rivals.com (which was a former home of CalHiSports.com), there are other online recruiting networks, including Scout.com and 247.com, which recently merged under the CBS umbrella.
Player evaluations can be as detached as “player X runs fast” to as intimate as “Player Y’s mom really connected with the coaches’ wives on a visit.”
These evaluations manifest into rankings that assign players “stars,” where one star is the lowest rank and five stars is the highest. Players with four or five stars see special promotion on lists like the ESPN 300.
Recruiting fanatics (“recruitaholics” or “recruitniks”) hunger for these tidbits of information, leading to Rivals selling for $100 million to Yahoo in 2007.
The reporting needed to create these player profiles relies heavily on the recruiting by the colleges themselves.
Alex Rios, USC football’s recruiting coordinator, scouts the country for talent. If USC thinks a player is worth a scholarship, recruiting reporters listen.
“We tell them we like a player,” Rios said, “and a two-star goes to a four-star just like that.”
Rios himself makes celebrities out of players in his own way, as he bends over backwards to foster positive experiences during player visits to the school.
“If we get a guy to visit,” he said, “we have to know everything about them to make them feel comfortable. We have to know about girlfriends, stats, whether or not mom likes Almond Rocas…everything.”
Rios is supported by a staff that builds in triggers on social media to alert them as to what their recruiting targets are doing. They constantly monitor Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or whatever social media outlet they need to track.
“Social media,” he said, “over the last five years has completely changed how recruiting works.”
If Rios does get the player and his family on campus for a visit, he likens himself to a glorified event planner, coordinating barbeques, parties and more to keep the visit fun.
“On the day of a visit,” he said, “it’s a total balancing act of pleasing everyone. My team runs around, reminds each other what dad likes to eat, what the player likes to do, everything we know from social media interactions. It’s like spinning plates.”
“The Internet,” says Margulies, “sped up recruiting.”
Bosco Answering the Demand
Competition remains St. John Bosco’s main motivation, despite network demand for the school to travel at least once a year since 2013.
“Traveling wasn’t a thing initially,” Negro said, “but I wanted to test our ability nationally.”
The Braves have faced nationally rated schools in Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, New Jersey, Ohio, Florida and Washington, D.C.. in the past four years.
Negro hired Jessica Christensen, a former sports marketer for the Los Angeles Clippers and San Diego Chargers, to handle the Braves’ increased logistical requirements.
“My brother went to Bosco, and I love the school,” said Christensen, who couldn’t have gone to the school herself even if she wanted to because it’s all-boys. “Jason was looking to relinquish a little control, so doing a little work organizing for the school was exactly the right workload.”
Now it’s a full-time job.
“I block out the itinerary for 80 kids,” she said, “plan every meal, reserve the practice field, make sure they don’t wander the night before a game, and on and on and on.”
For ESPN, she plays the sports information director role as in most major college programs. She provides the media guide, filled to the brim with player and coach bios, and schedules conference calls with the network production team, as well as practice visits.
“It’s chaos,” she says with a chuckle, “but just for me.”
Christensen works with Negro to negotiate for financial support from ESPN’s logistical proxy Paragon Marketing.
“We get travel stipends,” Negro said. “On our trip to Fort Lauderdale, our flights, hotels and transportation were covered.”
Added Christiansen: “When we went to Ohio to play Cincinnati’s St. Xavier in 2016, we got $10,000. For Florida this year, we got a lot more, probably 45% of all the cost.”
While obviously incentivized by the financial arrangements, the games carry a larger purpose.
“These trips prepare our kids for college,” Christensen said. “They require patience, and the pressure from playing in front of so many people on TV adjusts them to future stresses.”
While football is the catalyst, these trips also serve as educational opportunities. Take the Braves’ trip to the nation’s capitol in late September to play local powerhouse St. John’s College High.
The Braves visited D.C. for a week, taking in the White House, the National Archives, Arlington National Cemetery, the MLK Memorial and, most emotionally, the Vietnam War Memorial.
“My dad served over there,” said Negro, “and I got choked up being grateful that he made it back.”
Several players retweeted their team picture in front on the MLK Memorial, fully recognizing its significance in the wake of the NFL players’ kneeling protests that occurred over the same weekend.
Of course, it also has to be mentioned that trips like that also entice parents to want to send their kids to St. John Bosco. Public schools can’t offer the same incentive and in some sports in the past there have been limits imposed by the CIF whether schools can take those trips every year.
With all the work that Christensen and Negro do, amidst the demands of a media driven to flourish in the high-stakes world of high school football recruiting, the players remain the focus.
“Our kids are so grounded,” Christensen said. “I don’t take all the credit. It’s the parents and everyone who touches this program.”
Said Negro: “Social media and recruiting may have escalated the arms race, but the kids can handle it.”
At Bosco, they handled it last season all the way to winning the program’s second CIF Open Division state title in four years.
Sam Dodge writes about sports at high school, college, and Olympic levels. He announces football and basketball for the Prep Sports Network in south Los Angeles, and formerly covered Olympic sports for the Big Ten Digital Network. He has announced at St. John Bosco games this season. He also is a LT in the United States Navy Reserve. Follow Sam @samgododge.
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