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College Football Signing Day: What Role Can Recruiting Services Play?

Today isn't just Groundhog Day (sorry, Puxatawney Phil fans). It also happens to be national signing day in the world of college football, meaning that Division I football coaches around the country are holding their collective breath all day as they wait to see how the future of their programs take shape.

But coaches aren't the only nervous ones today. While the top prospective high school players juggle through the assortment of college offers they've received, hundreds of thousands of other players are simply hoping to receive scholarship offers at all. And this year, many high school student-athletes are relying on recruiting services to attract that wanted attention from college coaches.

National signing day is the first day when high school recruits can sign official national letters of intent (LOIs)—and in the college football world, it's a huge deal across the country. (Don't believe me? You must not be watching ESPN's 10-hour coverage of the event. Or the live feed of Alabama's fax machine, setup on the university's athletics website.)

Once a recruit signs a school's LOI, he "agree[s] to attend for one academic year the institution listed on the Letter in exchange for that institution awarding athletics financial aid for one academic year," according to the National Letter of Intent website. In layman's terms: Once a recruit signs the LOI, the recruit is locked into playing at and attending that school for one full academic year; if he doesn't, he forfeits a year of athletic eligibility in all sports. (There are exceptions where coaches allow student-athletes to be releasedRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader from their LOI without penalty, such as an illness in the family, but it happens rarely.)

There's been plenty of digital ink spilled about how LOIs favor the institutions and not the athlete, so we'll steer clear of that discussion. Long story short: While athletes have to go through a lengthy appeals process to get out of an LOI, an institution can revoke an LOI-signing athlete's scholarship if the school's admissions department rejects the student academically. After signing an LOI, a recruit is also bound to stay with his school, even if his coach gets fired or changes jobs.

Instead, let's focus on a less-heralded part of the recruiting battle: recruiting services.

An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from last week examined the growing role recruiting services play in the dog-eat-dog world of college recruiting. While the Jadeveon Clowneys of the world (the top-ranked football prospect this year) likely won't need to rely on a recruiting service to get the attention of colleges across the nation, the reality is that coaches only have a limited number of scholarships to offer to athletes each year. And if a coach doesn't know your name, chances are, you're not getting a scholarship from that school.

That's the harsh reality of recruiting: Only a miniscule fraction of high school student-athletes earn a Division I scholarship when they head off to college. According to a 2008 New York Times report, about 2 percent of the 6.4 million high school student-athletes received scholarships in the 2003-04 school year.

That's where these recruiting services come in. While the NCAA limits how much a coach is allowed to contact a prospective student-athlete, there are no restrictions as to how much a student-athlete can contact a college coach. Many of these recruiting services will set up websites or DVDs showcasing highlights of their clients, which then get sent to college coaches around the country.

A simple Google search of "recruiting service athlete" returns a veritable gaggle of results. There are plenty of free services, such as the National Collegiate Scouting Association; some offer both free and paid services, like First Choice Athlete, and others require payment, such as Athlete Recruiting Services.

The question student-athletes and their parents face: Are these recruiting services worth the cost?

"I hate to admit it, but when I get e-mails from scouting or recruiting services, I don't open them," Lindenwood men's basketball coach Brad Soderberg told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And, if the first sentence sounds like a form letter, I don't go any further. But if a player takes the time to include some information that lets me know he knows something about the program, I'll read it and I'll watch his DVD."

Washington University men's basketball coach Mark Edwards told the Post-Dispatch that he receives five or six e-mails a day from recruiting services touting prospective athletes that aren't good fits for the program, calling said e-mails "the equivalent of spam."

"What a recruiting service can't figure out is the type of player we look for," Edwards said.

So, a word of warning to all student-athletes planning on taking their talents to the collegiate level: Unless you're the absolute cream of the crop in your sport (think LeBron James), chances are, you're going to have to put in some serious legwork to attract the attention of your future college coach.

Whether that's done through a recruiting service (either paid or free) or on their own will be the million dollar question for many of these student-athletes and their families in the years to come.

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