Chicago Sports Analytics Startup Zcruit Finds Footing With Over 25 Percent Of Power 5 Football Programs

It was the spring of 2017, and CEO Ben Weiss questioned whether his then-fledgling analytics startup Zcruit had tapped out. Football programs at Northwestern, Old Dominion and Wake Forest were the only three paying clients for a product that streamlined the recruiting process for coaches and team personnel.

“It was very easy to be dejected,” Weiss said to Sports Business Chronicle last month, saying that the entrepreneurial journey could be succinctly described as “bad days and great weeks.”

At the time, Zcruit served just as a database platform that pulled from different data sources to ultimately determine a player’s likelihood of committing to a school and if he’s worth recruiting in the first place. Factors such as a student-athlete’s background information, received offers, official visits and a player’s direct interactions with other schools were all spliced together to formulate a certain threshold number.

Weiss and his lean staff leveraged their relationships with the three pre-existing customers to gather further insights on the product and what moved the needle, more or less, for recruiters who viewed the information on a daily basis. A key deduction from their conversations was the Zcruit platform, as it stood, wasn’t built into people’s routines.

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Daily emails alerting programs on recruits they were tracking proved to be a differentiation point. Schools could also receive notifications about rival schools’ recruiting process, which players they offered and who committed.

So, a crew of four software engineers and a data science specialist spent last summer hunkered down in Chicago, with “a shot to make something happen,” as Weiss put it.

Unlike Zcruit’s analytics platform — where there’s significant back-end customization — the company could offer free trials to both paying and prospective customers for what it eventually termed Zmail, its frequent alert system. The team fine-tuned the email offering and repurposed the product, “working our ass off on marketing it and selling it” in July and August, said Weiss.

With the regular alerts, Zcuit also began incorporating analytics into the emails, notifying recipients of prospects’ new offers and how that impacted the likelihood of them committing to their school. Hyperlinks also directed recruiters to the Zcruit database platform if they wanted to further engage with players’ profiles.

“In that period of time, that wound up being a great bet to place. We went from three D-I schools to 14 by the end of that summer,” said Weiss, who added that the Zmail stand-alone product is the company’s biggest seller with 17 schools that’ve opted in.

Though the Zmail offering “doesn’t seem like a particularly ground-breaking thing,” as Weiss said, it would up being a “sticker tool” for customers. To date, over 25 percent of Power 5 football programs utilize Zcruit in some fashion, including the likes of Clemson, UCLA, LSU and Texas, bringing the total number of D-I schools to 29. Moreover, over 250 coaches and recruiters engage with Zcruit’s content daily.

Following a late 2017 acquisition by Reigning Champs — a digital network that connects student-athletes, coaches and schools — Zcruit now has five full-time staffers and the subsequent freedom to continue to operate with the same level of independence it boasted prior to being acquired; terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

“What we’re gunning for is to be a data aggregation tool where now since we’re in the Reigning Champs community,” Weiss explained, “we have access to data that no one else has access to on top of the data that we currently have been gathering in our system. We have more leverage to make partnerships with third-party data sources that would be willing to put their data into our system in the way that can be mutually beneficial. Now, what we want to do is be the place of verified data and information for football coaches and recruiters.”

As part of the Reigning Champs network, Weiss envisions a future holistic Zcruit database platform that houses everything from student-athletes’ contact information, statistics, measurables, highlight videos and academic history to social media interactions, mental toughness assessment and tracked offers, among other integral data. Instead of requiring a D-I recruiter to have a dozen separate tabs open, Zcruit could package the information into one space, complete with layered analytics on top of the bits of data to drive recommendations on which players each school should be targeting.

Over the summer months, Weiss and his team’s priorities stretch beyond analytics, namely a social media insights and business intelligence feature geared around how recruits are actively engaging with different schools in 280 characters.

“So much of recruiting happens on Twitter,” Weiss said, “and we can break it down and say, ‘Hey, this is kid is ‘liking’ X percent of Alabama Tweets, X percent of Clemson Tweets and X percent of Ohio State Tweets. This guy you’re targeting might not have a Ohio State offer, but two of their coaches just started following a kid this week.’ ”

Weiss added that the new integrated offering is the “next big bet as a company,” with the expectation that it will be rolled out prior to the 2018 college football season.

Said Weiss: “Where we’re going is building out a full-fledged data hub on football recruits, putting that into the same system. If a coach wants to find any information on a recruit, they’ll ideally go to Zcruit to do it.”

About Mark J. Burns

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