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Volume 23 No. 28
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Two companies dive into the college athlete experience

Colleges across the country are spending millions on what they call the student-athlete experience. Most notably, the money is put into big-ticket items, such as state-of-the-art practice facilities, cost-of-attendance stipends and enhanced nutrition.

But there’s a completely different aspect to the student athlete’s day-to-day experience that doesn’t receive the same attention or resources. How do they juggle athletics with academics? Do they feel fairly treated by their coaches? Are they subjected to hazing or pressured to drink? Do they encounter a drug culture on the team?

Those are the kinds of questions that often define an athlete’s time at college much more than fancy locker rooms, say two evolving companies that are attempting to redefine how athlete feedback is collected and understood.

Athlete Viewpoint
■ Launched: 2016
■ Headquarters: State College, Pa.
■ No. of employees: 4
■ What they do: Provide insight into the student-athlete experience through customized anonymous surveys and data visualization.
■ Key executives: Michael Cross, Jennifer Cross, co-founders; Ryan Spencer, technical director
■ Select school clients: Central Michigan, Harvard, Iona, Maine, Nazareth, Rochester, Tulane, Tulsa, University of Chicago, Western Illinois, Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Photo: Athlete Viewpoint co-founders Michael and Jennifer Cross
Courtesy of: Athlete Viewpoint

One company, Athlete Viewpoint, is run by Michael Cross, a veteran athletic administrator who used to be athletic director at Bradley University and now is a senior associate AD at Penn State. Completely separate from his duties with the Nittany Lions, Cross started the business last year with his wife, Jennifer.

The other, RealRecruit, was started in 2015 by David Chadwick, a former college basketball player at Rice and Valparaiso who is using his own experience to help schools understand what’s most important to the athlete. Chadwick, now 27, said he was like a lot of young recruits who thought facilities, weather and uniforms were most important in choosing a school. What he found out when he got to college was totally different: It was a lot more about the team culture and environment.

Both rival companies share some qualities, in terms of their probing yet easy-to-use questionnaires that enable athletes to answer anonymously about academic, athletic and social issues. Some of the nuances are different, like their technology platforms, but both have based their business on delivering the kind of insight that helps athletic directors keep a finger on the pulse of the athletic department.

“The student-athlete experience is definitely front and center now,” Michael Cross said. “The NCAA has created an environment where student athletes have a voice and expect it. They also have the ability to be heard in ways through social media that didn’t previously exist. Cameras are everywhere. … ADs have to have an awareness of what’s going on in their program, and the surveys are one tool in an AD’s toolbox.”

Unlike the annual exit surveys or end-of-season questionnaires, Athlete Viewpoint and RealRecruit provide athletes the opportunity to provide feedback throughout the season, giving administrators a real-time understanding of what’s happening in their program from the anonymous answers. They see a response rate of 70-75 percent.

Both products also feature dashboards that compare answers and satisfaction grades to other schools or previous years, so administrators can tell how their coaches or other personnel stack up.

In a couple of instances this year, student-athlete surveys became vital legal evidence, including a high-profile discrimination case at Iowa. Results from the Hawkeyes’ annual surveys — not conducted by Athlete Viewpoint or RealRecruit — were used in testimony by AD Gary Barta, who was asked about specific allegations that were in the surveys.

At New Mexico recently, exit interviews reportedly revealed allegations of player abuse and compromised drug testing in the football program. That information has triggered an investigation.

Both Chadwick and Cross advocate for more consistent surveys that might uncover issues in a program before the season is over. They say their surveys have uncovered hugely problematic issues, from guns and drugs in some programs to a coach who arrived at practice with alcohol on his breath.

“People are beginning to understand the severity of not understanding their student athletes,” Chadwick said. “There’s been a big shift in recent years; failing to understand your student athletes can have drastic consequences.”

 Launched: 2015
Headquarters: Charlotte
■ No. of employees: 5
■ What they do: Provide an interactive tool that enables college administrators to receive immediate feedback from student athletes.
■ Key executive: David Chadwick, founder
■ Select school clients: Clemson, Mississippi, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Wake Forest, Duquesne, Monmouth, Texas-Rio Grande Valley

Photo: RealRecruit founder David Chadwick (with his wife Jessie) played basketball at Rice and Valparaiso.
Courtesy of: David Chadwick

These services can run from $5,000 into the low five figures per year, depending on the level of customization. Surveys can be short enough to be completed in five minutes or 25 minutes. They can ask questions in multiple-choice format or they can ask for longer, written responses. It just depends on how deep a school wants to go with questions.

The surveys also work on any device — phone, tablet, laptop, desktop. Nearly three-quarters of the surveys completed so far have been taken on a phone at Athlete Viewpoint; about two-thirds at RealRecruit.

“The information we’ve received will undoubtedly be even more valuable in future years as we build the comparative database,” said Wake Forest AD Ron Wellman, who works with RealRecruit.

Armed with the kind of in-depth and candid information they’ve never previously had from athletes, ADs can better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their operation, while also finding out about an abusive coach or a drug problem before it explodes into a bigger issue and winds up in the news.

“I don’t think we’ve always done the best job of really drilling down and getting data that can be turned into action,” said Brett Burchette, executive director of development at Drexel University and a longtime friend of Cross’ who has consulted on Athlete Viewpoint. “The data collected from student athletes can tell us if we’re going in the right direction or if we need to pivot.”

Burchette is a former athletic administrator who worked with Cross at Bradley when Cross was the AD there. Both Cross and Burchette have doctorate degrees that help them understand how to research and prepare questionnaires.

“What we’ve found is that a lot of athletic departments don’t have time to get these things done,” Cross said. “They don’t have the expertise, they don’t get the attention they should, so it typically gets done last minute in the spring or it falls through the cracks. Athletics have become very comfortable with outsourcing certain functions, like sponsorship sales. I compare it to doing your own taxes versus having an accountant do it. You save time and resources and you do a better job.”

The surveys also can apply filters, such as class, sport, race and gender. And they’re just as applicable for Division I schools as they are Division III or junior colleges. At some schools, the surveys have become part of the annual evaluation for coaches, trainers or anyone else in the department.

“The way the student-athlete experience is portrayed now is through spending and facilities — a never-ending arms race,” Chadwick said. “If you look at the NCAA surveys, they show that the factors that most influence the student-athlete experience are things like team, teammates, people, friends. In some cases, I think we’re failing to effectively understand what it is that most influences the student-athlete experience, and that’s something we can work on.”