Prior to the dawning of the internet age, recruiting coverage was something that was limited to local regional coverage and a couple of other features such as the Long Beach Press Telegram's yearly "Best in the West" list. For those that found the process intriguing, the advent of recruiting sites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com, along with their subsidiaries that cover specific teams were a godsend. No longer were recruiting fanatics calling 1-900 numbers late in the night or waiting for monthly magazines and newspapers whose info was out of date by the time it showed up in your mailbox. We were now all able to effectively follow the day to day drama of high school kids trying to figure out where they are going to go to college and try not to feel creepy about it.
Much like the NFL Draft, college football recruiting was once very a niche interest, with only a handful of people who were really into it. Since it takes place off the field and is more about scouting and strategy than actual competition it is fairly boring to the average fan, but fascinating to the super fan (the kind of person who will play a Dynasty on an NCAA Football game and simulate the actual games so they can just do the recruiting). There is no tailgating or festivities with recruiting and it's not like it is something that you can get drunk and watch, at least I don't think anyone has tried.
However, as the recruiting sites started to get more popular and National Signing Day slowly started to become an event that more and more average college football fans cared about, the lumbering giant that is ESPN took notice. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing that these outlets were doing a much better job than they would be able to do, ESPN decided to slowly but surely get into the recruiting coverage game themselves.
While I do love ESPN for the high quality of production that they have for their televised events, the last thing that the recruiting game needed was the network and particularly their online platform, expanding their coverage. Since ESPN is still primarily a television network, their main objective online is to hype and promote their product, and since ESPN primarily televises games that take place in the Southeast, East Coast and Midwest and they broadcast very few Pac-12 games, their recruiting coverage and rankings are incredibly slanted towards the regions outside of the West Coast, with a particular emphasis put on the Southeast..
Just take a look at their yearly player rankings, in the 2013 ESPN 150, a whopping 25 of the top 100 players are from Florida and of the Top 150, 51 hail from Florida, Georgia or Alabama. There is no arguing against the fact that a lot of talented players come from these states, particularly Florida, but it is almost impossible to believe that a quarter of the 100 best high school seniors in the nation next year are from Florida and one third of the top 150 are from just those three states.
Just a couple of years ago, numbers showed that more NFL players hailed from California than any other state with more than 30 players on NFL rosters than the state of Florida and nearly 150 more than the state of Georgia, yet the 2013 ESPN 150 has more players from Georgia than they do the state of California and the numbers were very similar for the class of 2012. Displaying the balanced regional coverage that ESPN is lacking, Scout and Rivals include nearly half of the number of players from Florida and Georgia in their top 150 rankings from the last two years and include almost twice as many players from California in their rankings as ESPN does.
This also shows up in how highly they rate the West Coast's top players, almost every year, the very top of the most highly rated players on the West Coast are always ranked a little bit lower in the ESPN 150 than they are in other recruiting sites' rankings. Take a look at the differences between the national rankings of the West Coast's top players during the last two years by ESPN and their competitors.
Max Browne - Scout #3, Rivals #5, ESPN #13
Su'a Cravens - Scout #5, Rivals #8, ESPN #15
Shaquille Thompson - Scout #3, Rivals #4, ESPN #16
Arik Armstead - Scout #2, ESPN #24
This is a fairly minor gripe, but it just shows how ESPN is frequently failing to properly rate West Coast players each year.
One of the largest problem is that while Scout and Rivals knew their audience and gained a lot of their readership through the fans of specific teams, ESPN is built for the generic sports fan in the country's biggest markets and fans of the sports, leagues and teams of which ESPN broadcasts games. This is why ESPN will talk about the NFL Draft for months leading up to it even though there isn't much going on, because they dedicated three days of programming to it and why they will perpetually talk about potential NBA and MLB trades, they want you to watch the games that they broadcast for both of those leagues.
Regardless if they will ever have a serious contract to broadcast Pac-12 games, ESPN needs to make the commitment to properly covering West Coast recruiting before they put too much stock into covering recruiting, unless they want to say that they pretty much only care about the Eastern regions.
Scout and Rivals also went about, acquiring and building focused sites and writers that knew their teams and regions well. This created a network of reporters and analysts that had a great knowledge of recruiting and connections all around the country in various regions. These sites didn't build their ability to accurately and objectively rank players overnight and because of this, they don't feature a regional bias unless you go looking for it. If you want to stay in a bubble and only follow Colorado State recruiting then you can do that, but Rams Insider isn't going go masquerading as caring about anything other than CSU, or possibly Colorado.
Another one of the biggest issues that ESPN entering the recruiting coverage game is starting to create that will only get worse, is the fact that, as a whole, ESPN has become a TMZ like perpetual mess of hype and star worship, and this is the last thing that high school football players need. It has already begun with some of the elite prospects delaying signing their letter of intent to maximize their hype and bask in the self glory just a little bit longer. We have already begun to create athletes that think they are superstars before they even get out of high school. The biggest difference between Michael Jordan and LeBron James is that Jordan had things to prove when he came into the league and LeBron just had things to live up to because ESPN told everyone that he was the best player ever before he even had a chance to accomplish anything. College football does not need guys coming in thinking that they are already superstars more than they already do; it won't be good for the game or for the players.
This will also lead to only about four or five high school senior football players receiving attention each year since ESPN can't seem to be able to talk about more than a few players in each sport, sometimes only one for periods of time (Tebow, Peyton Manning, Jeremy Lin). One of the great things about following recruiting was that it was a niche interest and specific fan bases could hide from the cloud of hype and celebrity that has harmed the coverage of other sports. It won't be long now and all we will be hearing about are a few very select recruits who are likely only considering SEC schools and possibly Notre Dame, at least on a national level.
Alas, it is only natural with the building in popularity of recruiting coverage and the explosion of sports media, that ESPN would get into the game and spin it into their own brand of sports entertainment, and there isn't really anything we can do about this. What ESPN can do though, is actually make a commitment to covering the West Coast and keep in mind that the athletes that they will be covering are high school kids and not professional or even college athletes.
This means hiring some experts on the West Coast that can speak to the talent out West and actually factoring in their input. Their experts also have to work on their player rankings and make sure that they don't have nearly half of the players coming from one state and that a power state like California is always well represented along with emerging states like Arizona and Utah.
They also need to tread lightly in the hype department (I know that this is really hard for ESPN). I know that technically when you are rating athletes it is impossible to not hype their skills, but what I'm mainly talking about is hyping persona and personality. We don't need any high school athletes being known by one name monikers, even if they are on the West Coast.