ST. LOUIS — Southeastern Conference college football coaches took turns slinging their school’s recruiting pitches in Hoover, Ala., this week.
The promoting from the pulpit at the conference’s football media days was just a taste of what high school football players with NFL dreams hear all the time.
But if any youngster’s head is hurting from all the spin, he’s in luck.
In Atlanta, there is a marketing expert who might be able to cut through the noise.
“One of the things we study is brand equity,” Manish Tripathi, assistant professor of marketing at Emory University, says shortly after answering the phone. “That’s kind of how this whole thing got started.”
This was supposed to be about football.
“One of the problems in the business world is trying to understand, what’s the quality?” he says. “How do I compare Coke to other colas? But in sports, it’s easy. You have wins and losses. Everyone plays the same game. … We can apply a lot of our business principles to sports — to teams, to players, to leagues.”
Tripathi and his partner, associate professor of business Michael Lewis (no, not the Michael Lewis who wrote Moneyball), launched the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics blog in March. It’s where the duo posts its sports-related work, findings that sometimes ruffle feathers — like the time they didn’t put Kansas on the list of best fan bases in college basketball.
But one of the topics the professors have investigated recently — which college football programs land kids on professional teams via the NFL Draft — yielded some interesting information.
“If the goal is to get drafted into the NFL, how are these schools doing, from the player’s perspective?” Tripathi says. “Of course Alabama is going to have 11 draft picks, and it’s going to look really good. But how do they do, as a player, in getting you drafted?”
A warning: It’s risky to draw concrete, without-a-doubt conclusions from advanced statistics. But high school players set on making it to the NFL might find a few conclusions in the Emory studies worth considering.
1) Right now, the SEC seems to be the best place to punch a ticket to the NFL.
When comparing conferences as a whole, the SEC was better at turning high school football talent into NFL Draft picks in 2013. Yes, that might have been obvious when the conference churned out 63 draft picks. But one argument could have been that the league gets better football players to begin with.
The professors debunked this by leveling the playing field. They created a weighted average for each college football team, one based on the ranking the schools’ 2013 draft-eligible players were assigned by the Rivals recruiting service before they arrived on campus. Tricky math aside, the scoring system works like this: College teams were given more credit for sending a two-star player to an NFL team via the draft than sending a five-star stud. The end result was a score called the conversion rate.
2) The best teams aren’t always the best choice.
The Emory duo’s first foray into this subject of football talent development, published in April, made waves. Released before the 2013 NFL Draft, it investigated the conversion rate of four- and five-star recruits from 2007-12.
Shockingly, the University of Kentucky led not only the SEC, but the entire nation. The Wildcats’ whopping conversion rate (1.75) showed the team produced more draft picks between 2007-12 than the number of four- and five-star recruits it signed.
When lowly Kentucky got first in something football-related, some wrote the Emory study off as a joke. But the surprise shed light on some trends Tripathi says his work, when expanded upon, showed.
Win percentage and trips to bowl games don’t help a school’s conversion rate. Both were factored into the study; neither showed a positive effect. The more money a school spends on its football program, however, the better its conversion rate tends to be. And one negative correlation jumped out.
“One of the biggest factors that affects getting drafted is how many other four- and five-star recruits are there,” Tripathi says. “That’s a negative toward getting drafted.”
The conversion rate study seems to show that teams known for hauling one talented recruiting class in after another do not always do the best job of developing all of those recruits.
Example: Florida signed 104 four- and five-star recruits from 2007-12. Twenty-nine were drafted, landing the Gators 11th-worst in the SEC in terms of conversion rate.
Here’s how the rest of the SEC conference schools stacked up in that study, including newcomers Mizzou and Texas A&M.
An example of how fast things change can be found in the SEC conversion rate the professors completed after the 2013 NFL Draft — the same study that confirmed the SEC’s top spot on the talent-developing totem pole.
This analysis, not restricted to four- and five-star recruits specifically, showed schools are always jostling. Yet, from a big-picture perspective, there seem to be some things that are certain.
If you are a high school football player with an NFL Draft dream, consider picking a school that a) plays in the Southeastern Conference, b) spends decent money on its football team and/or c) isn’t already flooded with top talent at your position.
That’s Tripathi’s advice, at least. He certainly knows how to bend the numbers. But he promises he has no bias, even if he went to Stanford.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at email@example.com.