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The College Try Some high school athletes are hiring professional scouting services to help them land scholarships

Wesley Swafford wasn't the best swimmer on her Cincinnati club
team, and she considered herself a long shot to earn a
scholarship at her dream school, Penn State. So when her mother,
Paula, heard about a company that helps raise the profile of
young athletes and attract the interest of college coaches, she
quickly signed up her daughter. In November, a year after Paula
paid a Cincinnati affiliate of the Birmingham-based National
Scouting Report $2,495 to assemble a knockout promotional
package--including a brochure, recommendations from NSR scouts, a
DVD of Wesley's swimming strokes and a website devoted to her
accomplishments--her daughter scored a partial scholarship with
the 2002 Big Ten champion Nittany Lions. "She received more
attention from more schools than girls who were better than she
was," says Paula. "I truly think that NSR helped give her the

Competition for athletic scholarships has become fierce. While
the NCAA doesn't keep a record of the number of athletic grants
awarded annually by its member schools or the monetary value of
those grants, NCAA vice president of championships Judy Sweet
says, "There is definitely more interest [in receiving aid] than
scholarships available." Consequently, the race among
entrepreneurs to help athletes gain an edge in the recruiting
process is heating up. There are more than 50 services, mostly
Internet-based, designed to match student-athletes with schools.
NSR, which was founded in 1980 by Robert Rigney, a
video-production specialist, is one of the better established,
grossing between $2 million and $3 million annually.

Why pay a company to do a job that anyone with a camcorder and a
computer could do? NSR assembles slick promotional packages for
its clients, ranging from an $895 basic model in which NSR sends
out e-mail and paper resumes and includes the player in a monthly
promotional mailing, to the $2,495 elite package, which features
a DVD and a regularly updated personal website. But its calling
card is a stable of 200 scouts in 50 states and several foreign
countries. These bird dogs, who include former college coaches
and professional athletes, scope the sidelines for talent in all
sports. As they drum up business--many of NSR's clients find out
about the company when they are approached by a regional rep--the
scouts also gather information on athletes for college coaches,
who receive reports from NSR free of charge. "We're able to scout
when coaches can't," says NSR president Rusty Rigney, Robert's
son. He says he receives more than 25,000 queries about athletes
from colleges each year. "We've earned the trust of so many
coaches who have benefited [from our services]."

The majority of NSR's athletes connect with smaller Division I
programs and D-II and D-III schools that cobble together aid
packages. Its bread-and-butter customers are low-profile athletes
best suited to programs that lack the funding to recruit
prospects beyond their region. For example, Makeba Davis, the
women's volleyball coach at Quinnipiac (enrollment 4,700) in
Hamden, Conn., says NSR's comprehensive DVD persuaded him to
recruit Kalyn Hundley of Gulf Breeze, Fla., this year. "We have a
very limited budget, so I never would have known about Kalyn
otherwise," says Davis. "Now I expect her to be one of my top two
freshmen next season."

On the other hand, coaches at the biggest programs generally
consider NSR and the other scouting services more of a headache
than a resource. "Because we feel like we have a good grasp on
what players we are interested in, we don't use those companies,"
says Mike Locksley, an assistant football coach at Maryland.
Kelly Graves, the women's basketball coach at Gonzaga, scoffs at
what he calls "fancy" player profiles that he regularly receives
from NSR. "If you have to spend money to get noticed, we're
probably not interested," he says.

The consensus among coaches is that while the slick packaging
doesn't hurt, it's the raw material that counts. To Wesley's
credit, it turns out that she had a lot more going for her than a
cool video. "The kid's an academic achiever with a great
personality and athletic potential," says Penn State swimming
coach Bill Dorenkott. "The way that was conveyed couldn't have
mattered less."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF NSR (2) MAN IN THE MIDDLE Rusty Rigney's NSR assembled a promo package for Swafford, who'll swim for Penn State.

Players Aplenty

Women are playing NCAA sports in record numbers, thanks to Title
IX. Even for men, cutbacks in programs haven't hurt overall
participation. Here are the number of athletes in Division I, II
and III combined for selected seasons.


1981--82 169,800 74,239
1991--92 186,047 96,469
2000--01 208,866 150,916