National Signing Day has developed into one of the most-talked about events in college athletics -- call it the NFL Draft plus Election Night.
The day marks the first time that high school athletes can officially sign letters of intent to colleges and has turned into a booming business. Online publications like 247Sports, Scout.com, and others build their entire year around extensive coverage of the exciting day, while ESPNU dedicated 10 hours of live coverage to where the most highly touted players will play their college football.
National Signing Day attracts the most passionate of fans that demand the most exhaustive information possible, while also bringing out more casual fans who don't know too much about the day but are generally interested in seeing how their favorite school fared in recruiting.
Managing the expectations and demands of both types of fans certainly isn't easy.
ESPNU senior coordinating producer Shawn Murphy said the network tried on Wednesday to give the diehards what they want, but also provided some graphics that could relate to those tuning in for the first time. ESPNU tried to accomplish this by: putting the rankings of the players next to their names, doing conference rankings and by interviewing coaches to give insight into the recruiting class in a general sense.
ESPNU had more resources than any of its competitors in trying to accomplish all of those things, but Murphy said the issue of balancing it all out is one of the biggest challenges each year. The network tried to give a varied approach through placing reporters at 13 different schools and providing live coverage of 11 player announcements.
It was able to provide Florida State's enthusiastic reaction to defensive tackle Eddie Goldman's commitment -- Murphy called it the crowning moment of the network's coverage -- while also keeping tabs on the all the drama that comes with the day. Its live updates of the drama surrounding Georgia commit Josh Harvey-Clemons, who didn't fax in his letter, was some of the best work the network did all day.
The massive amount of coverage doesn't come without criticism, though. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier joked about ESPNU not having a reporter at his school's campus, but fans of some schools weren't nearly as jovial as Spurrier in announcing their criticism of the attention paid to some schools and not others.
Murphy said that was simply an efftect of being unable to be everywhere at once. The network was looking to space itself out throughout the country, but also make sure to focus on the important stories. That is why schools like Penn State, Alabama, LSU and others got the live coverage treatment, while other schools did not.
With Penn State we felt we needed to have a presence there because that story transcended college football and was in the spotlight for several months, he said. Alabama was national champion, LSU played in the national championship -- we looked at a combo of 2011 success on the field with recruiting success.
Other major criticisms were that while the network dedicated an impressive amount of time to National Signing Day, some of its reporters were not as immersed in recruiting knowledge as some would have liked. Reporter Pedro Gomez is known for his quality reporting at the main network, but likely doesn't think often about whom the fifth-ranked linebacker in the country is and where he is going.
The ESPNU senior coordinating producer disagrees with the general criticism and felt the group was well-prepared for the day, even if their primary job isn't college football coverage. Rece Davis, Dari Nowkhah and David Pollack were a few of the ESPN talent that shined particularly bright during the coverage.
A lot of them have good relationships with the schools and coaching staffs, he said. They've been there before and there is a trust level there. We are trying to get access and information from the school and they are good reporters -- they ferret that sort of information out.
It is that kind of access that Murphy feels separates ESPNU from all of the other outlets that cover National Signing Day. The ability to get well-known coaches such as USC's Lane Kiffin and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher to provide analysis on their recruiting class is one of the primary differentiators.
It also didn't hurt that it could leverage the power of SportsCenter and espn.com to generate interest in the coverage. SportsCenter provided multiple updates of some of the big news, while the primary story on espn.com for the majority of the day was about National Signing Day.
ESPNU certainly wasn't the only organization to dedicate a lot of time to the day, though. CBS Sports dedicated eight hours to covering the day from a wide variety of angles, including live interviews with a plethora of college coaches. CBS Sports didn't generate the overall buzz of ESPNU -- it's hard to compete with the Worldwide Leader in any realm -- but showcased the growing amount of interest in college football recruiting.
The most dedicated of fans were likely watching either ESPNU or CBS Sports throughout the day, but undoubtedly also spent time at one of the major recruiting networks.
Yahoo's Rivals.com, Fox's Scout.com, and the independent 247Sports are the industry leaders in providing recruiting information for monthly subscribers. Without factoring in various discount deals that are occasionally offered, the networks charge approximately $9.99 a month to the most diehard of college sports fans.
Those networks are known for their strong coverage of recruiting throughout the year, but it is on National Signing Day that they seem to get the most attention. Rivals and Scout are the old stalwarts and have plenty of resources at their hands through their parent companies, but it is what 247Sports is doing that is changing the market.
Behind CEO Shannon Terry, who at one point founded Rivals.com, 247Sports has put a heavy emphasis on the mobile capabilities of the entire network. The company, which has been around for just a little over a year, wants its users to be able to easily access all of the articles and information on the message board from their smartphones. The idea behind the strategy is that it allows fans to stay connected to the community that 247Sports has built, even if they are on the road.
That community connection is why those within 247Sports feel that their coverage of events such as National Signing Day doesn't directly compete with what ESPNU or CBS was trying to accomplish.
Our users are going to watch ESPNU or CBS on signing day, but they are going to come to our message boards to talk about it, 247Sports national recruiting director J.C. Shurburtt said. They come and ask our analysts to offer more in-depth analysis than maybe what they can hear from a sound bite on television.
I have a lot of respect for the guys at ESPN and I think Tom Luginbill is a rising star on television and he knows his stuff, he added. But I don't know that National Signing Day necessarily lends itself to television other than they do a good job with it and do a good job of promoting it.
ESPNU would obviously disagree, but it appears the hectic day is big enough for two somewhat connected ecosystems to survive. ESPNU can provide the visuals of announcements and direct access to college coaches, while networks like 247Sports can provide that in-depth analysis within a community.
That personal attention to users is why 247Sports, Rivals and others can continually attract people to pay $9.99 a month for the latest update on where the nation's No. 1 quarterback might be headed. Paying money to get insider information on the thoughts of a 17-year-old might be absurd to some, but it is the perfect showcase of the dedication of college football fans.
It is why ESPNU can show 10 hours of live coverage of high school athletes. It is why someone bought a billboard celebrating No. 1 wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham's commitment to Missouri. It's probably even why networks like ESPN are willing to shell out billions of dollars for the television rights of college football games.
Some, including ESPN's own Kirk Herbstreit, would argue that all of that attention is having a nasty effect on prospective athletes. With the five-star rankings and live coverage of announcements, the risk of players getting an unfairly inflated ego is huge.
Not every one of these kids is going to be able to make the jump from high school to college football, Shurburtt said. When you look at it like that, it's kind of celebrating the accomplishments of the unaccomplished. More and more of these guys ruin their careers because they don't go in with the right mindset.
Don't expect that to convince either ESPNU or 247Sports to cut back its coverage -- not as long as it continues to be successful. 247Sports surpassed its projections on both subscribers and traffic, while ESPN is very optimistic that the coverage availability on mobile devices and through streaming online will lead to good ratings.
It's hard to imagine it getting much bigger than it already is -- 10 hours of live coverage is mind boggling to most -- but as long as there is an audience, the coverage will be there.
This year was the first year that I thought maybe we need to step back a little with some of it, Shurburtt concluded. I still liked the 10 hours of coverage. And ultimately, if it wasn't something that fans wanted, it wouldn't be there.