Many bloggers think they know college sports.
Ben Weiss, who entered Northwestern casually blogging about Wildcats recruiting, may be on the verge of reinventing the recruitment of college athletes.
The company he co-founded at Northwestern, Zcruit, allows college football programs to hone in on realistic prospects.
Zcruit was based off a simple quandary that nagged at Weiss — the average college football program, he said, gets 10 percent of the athletes it recruits. Many of the players a program spends time on, it likely never had a chance of landing.
The athlete that has offers from Alabama and Ohio State probably isn’t heading to Northwestern. The athlete that paid five visits to Georgia Tech and declined numerous invites to visit Wake Forest probably isn’t going to end up as a member of the Demon Deacons.
Weiss turned that thinking — and the data it relies on — into a product that is already being used by 13 “big customers,” including nine Power Five schools, a member of every Power Five conference and one of the four College Football Playoff teams, Weiss said.
Scott Daniel has been friends with Weiss since high school when they both attended Oak Park-River Forest. Daniel, who is now a part-time employee at Zcruit, is not surprised by Weiss’ ingenuity and success.
“Having known Ben for so long, I know that when he has a good idea, he doesn’t just let it sit by the wayside,” Daniel said. “He knows how to develop an idea into something that can be put into action in the world.”
With California-based Reigning Champs’ recent purchase of Zcruit — and the treasure trove of data Weiss will have access to as a result — he has reason to be more excited than ever.
“We think we have a really fun, exciting start, and we’re pumped to see what we can do next,” said Weiss, a 2017 Northwestern graduate.
Per the Reigning Champs website, the company serves 5 million student-athletes and helps them find opportunities to play in college.
“It will allow us to access more schools with more data,” Weiss said. “(It will) ultimately allow us to go beyond football recruiting and look beyond Division I football into all divisions and ultimately all sports and really make an impact and make a lasting change in how the recruiting process is handled by schools.”
For Melissa Kaufman, executive director of The Garage, a hub for Northwestern innovation that helped incubate Zcruit, the Reigning Champs purchase of Zcruit was a proud moment. It was the first purchase of a company incubated at The Garage.
“From that first interaction onward, Ben has eagerly taken advantage of all the resources The Garage has to offer,” Kaufman said in a press release. “We’ve enjoyed watching him grow an idea into a business and now an acquisition.”
When Weiss started at Northwestern, he was another blogger toiling away at recruiting stories, albeit ones with a greater statistical influence than most. A week into his freshman year, those numbers-based stories caught the attention of Northwestern football director of player personnel Chris Bowers, who summoned Weiss into his office and offered him the chance to work for Northwestern’s athletic department.
“Having the opportunity to work on the front lines within a department, especially Northwestern and the Big Ten, was a dream come true,” Weiss said. “They didn’t just give me work (like) folding letters or requesting transcripts. I was able to do some cool, impactful stuff.”
Weiss was living a dream, a former Northwestern recruiting blogger actually helping the Wildcats find the players that would light up Ryan Field and fulfill coach Pat Fitzgerald’s dream of winning Northwestern’s first Big Ten championship since 2000.
Except, by his sophomore year, the low percentage of recruits that actually arrived in Evanston was haunting him.
It wasn’t a Northwestern thing. It was a general college recruiting issue, one Weiss was mulling over.
“The majority of the time we were spending evaluating players was being wasted on guys who were not good fits for our program,” Weiss said, adding that by the time a program circled back to more realistic options, they might be gone. “If we were able to zero in on the right players for our program at the earliest possible time, we would be able to stop settling for lesser prospects.”
There had to be a better way.
“If there could be an automatic way to filter out this 70 percent of guys I shouldn’t have spent my time looking at anyway, who else could I have found?” Weiss said. “What other impact could I have made? My time would have just been so much better spent.”
If only there were a solution.
Zcruit’s inspiration came from an odd place, an economics class taught by Northwestern president Morton Schapiro. The president and professor was talking about his time at Williams College (Mass.), where he previously served as president, and how the admissions department there used an algorithm to figure out which students would be most likely to accept admission at Williams. Colleges need this information to try to hit their target enrollments and not go too far under or over.
And there it was — the magic word — algorithm.
“When I saw that was being applied to some degree at some admissions departments, or at the very least was possible, I knew this would be incredibly useful in the world of college football,” Weiss said.
From there, he worked on building a database of players that Northwestern had recruited over the previous few years, trying to figure out an algorithm that would predict which players eventually made it to Evanston.
He brought on a friend of his who was strong in analytics and statistics, then software engineers. After founding Zcruit in the fall of 2015, Danny Baker, Dino Mujkic, Gautier Dagan and Weiss spent years refining the algorithm, then the software.
They didn’t work in a vacuum. The Garage pushed them forward, providing mentorship and alumni connections.
“Ben and the Zcruit team are a success story in many ways,” said Hunter Hillenmeyer, a Zcruit mentor, former Chicago Bears linebacker and graduate of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, in a press release. “They saw a market need and built technology around it.”
The algorithm was complex, incorporating demographic data like GPA, high school size and hometown population; interaction with the client school; and interaction with other schools.
“All of us were working for free,” Weiss said. “It was a big passion project for all of us. We did just countless hours of work in our spare time, outside of class, outside of school, whenever we could. It’s crazy to think about in retrospect what we put into this without making a penny. We didn’t make a penny off this until two years after I started gathering the data and trying to make this an actual thing.”
The numbers sold themselves when they sampled their product with a new class of Wildcats recruits. Weiss said Zcruit had a 94 percent success rate, with 96 percent of the prospects they expected to commit to Northwestern ending up in Evanston.
“It’s just a really elegant idea, and I think that anything that brings efficiency and ease to an industry that is as complex and needlessly weighed down by formalities as college recruiting is something that’s worth pursuing,” Daniel said. “Zcruit is a really simple idea, and if it’s executed well, it can make a lot of people’s jobs a lot easier.”
Jonah Rosenblum is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.