STARKVILLE — Every summer, universities and colleges across the country host thousands of boys and girls on their campuses.
Collegiate athletics, a unique multimillion dollar industry, can’t let three months pass without continuing to strengthen its fan base.
Camps fill down time in the summer and are part of an interconnected network on campus.
Coaches and camp coordinators work with residence halls and dining services to ensure campers are issue — free during their stays at schools.
It’s a system that accomplishes several tasks in one step, as coaches use camps to recruit, to build the school brand and to provide campus exposure to future students.
Concurrently, residence halls, typically closed to enrolled students during the summer, earn extra dollars that go toward future renovations and furniture.
“Everyone works together, and the money is recycled in the university,” Mississippi State assistant football coach and camp coordinator Mark Hudspeth said. “It benefits everybody.”
The idea of summer camps on college campuses isn’t rooted in athletics. Academic-based camps share a similar role in promoting the university, though the volume of campus visitors in sports camps is much greater.
By the end of the summer, baseball, football, and men’s basketball camps at MSU will have attracted more than 3,000 visitors to campus. Football accounted for 2,200 campers, and the number swells when soccer, volleyball, women’s basketball, softball, and tennis are factored in.
If you add parents to the mix, the university has an economical avenue for exposure.
“If you have one kid become a prospect, that’s great,” MSU men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury said, “but there’s 400 or 500 who may become students. Whether it’s a (Rick’s) Rowdy, a fan, or just a student. We probably gain more in that way than from a recruiting standpoint.”
Without tangible evidence of which kids attended sports camps and later became students, analyzing how camps affect MSU’s growing student body can be tedious.
Mississippi State’s enrollment increased by 800 students in 2007 and 795 in ’08, making the university the largest in the state.
Stansbury said the influence of sports camps has helped the student body.
“I’d have to think hard to look back to a kid that went to our fifth- or sixth-grade camp and ended up signing on scholarship,” he said. “But I can’t tell you how many students and fans I meet who’ll say, ‘Coach, you remember me? I used to come to your camps when I was young.’
“I think the biggest thing it does for our program is it builds support from kids, who in years to come will be students here.”
Promoting MSU doesn’t stop when kids leave camp, as follow-up e-mails about future camps are sent to parents and “thank you” cards are sent to coaches. Campers return home with branded gear, planting even more seeds when they wear a camp shirt to school and tell friends about what they learned and did at MSU.
“It’s the window to your university,” MSU baseball coach John Cohen said. “They get a weeklong snapshot. We try to treat all our campers like our players. We try and make them into a Mississippi State baseball player for a week.”
Ideally, coaches hope to find their next standout athlete at camp and try to target future prospects. This is accomplished more through camps held for high school athletes, as team camps can double or triple the number of prep players on campus.
Football hosted 57 prep teams this year for its two, one-day 7-on-7 passing camps. Baseball team camps cover four days. The time allows Cohen and his staff more time to gather information about a prospect. All the speed and strength tests and baseball skills evaluations are done onsite.
“You don’t just get to see them play one game, you get to see them play multiple games, work in between sessions, and how they interact with other kids,” MSU baseball coordinator of camps Nick Mingione said. “The amount of information you can obtain in a camp is just incredible. It’s more than you’re going to get on the road.”
With the growing number of travel ball teams and hand-picked All-Star squads in the summer, getting a good read on a prospect has become more challenging, Stansbury said.
The Amateur Athletic Union circuit, in particular, helps student-athletes gain exposure to schools throughout the region and county, which means Stansbury and his staff have limited opportunities to scout thoroughly.
Increased NCAA legislation banishing elite basketball camps and universities paying high school coaches to bring in teams has put a premium on camp scouting, Stansbury said.
“I don’t know if any other sport has dealt with what basketball has gone through in the past couple of years. It will get increasingly challenging as we move forward, so we’ve got to take advantage of it when we have our camps.
“I can watch them play right here for three days, talk to them, and get a lot more accomplished. When they leave here, they might be on five or six AAU teams. One might be in L.A., the other may be in Florida.
“It beats bouncing around,” Stansbury said.
David Miller/(Columbus) Commerical Dispatch