Former golf professional Chris Vidal founded Athletes USA with the aim of giving talented young athletes the opportunity to gain scholarships in the United States. At the same time he has tapped into the commercial goldmine that is US college sport.
Given that the best estimates value the United States' college sports industry at US$3 billion, it is hardly a surprise that the sector has spawned its own recruitment industry as agencies around the USA and further afield seek to get their hands on a slice of the pie. In some respects that is very much a good thing: talented young athletes have never had it so good in terms of the opportunities available to them. But there are also pitfalls: inevitably, as with any growth industry, the quality of recruitment agencies varies.
That is a fact to which Chris Vidal can attest. The Englishman is now the managing director of dedicated sports scholarship agency Athletes USA but, once, he was an aspiring athlete himself, only to be caught out. "I was about 15-years-old," he recounts now. "I was an avid golfer playing at county level for Surrey and playing big tournaments in England and internationally. And I knew I wanted to go to America on a sports scholarship to play golf. I used an agency – paid my money, hoped it was going to get me something, and they let me down and didn't really do anything for me."
Though Vidal went on to find a scholarship through a golf coach he knew, going on to turn pro and play in the States on the PGA's Nationwide Series tour – his experience of using an agency stuck with him. "When I came back to England I had friends who were still looking to go to America, play out there and compete. They signed up with this other agency, had no luck, and I said: ‘Well I can help you guys out' so I started getting them golf scholarships to America, had a few friends there who helped me out and I saw an opportunity to start my own agency, simply because in the marketplace there wasn't really much competition – good competition anyway. Everything was really expensive and you weren't really guaranteed anything."
Athletes USA was born. Vidal set up the company at the end of 2006 with the aim of helping youngsters aged 17 and 18 get offered scholarships across a whole variety of sports. "Basically I started with not much to be honest," says Vidal of an agency that now has hundreds of youngsters on its books and franchises around the world. "It was a couple of thousand pounds really. I got a website going and got in contact with some coaches I knew and made connections through friends. I started small.
"In 2007 we started taking payments for athletes and having them join the programme. What I really did to beat the competition was make things cheaper than what they were charging but also offer better services, so our primary service, our exclusive programme, is where we – though the athlete has to be good – guarantee them a scholarship and, if not, they'll get their money back. There really isn't any agency that does that. We can only do it if the kid is good. If the kid is good, got good academics, and we believe we can get them a scholarship, then we'll offer them a place on the programme."
Fundamental to the company is that the would-be students are talented. Mindful of his own experience, Vidal has strong opinions about other agencies who he believes simply take advantage of the naïveté of young athletes. "There's a lot of agencies out there who recruit kids but they don't recruit the rights kids, they just take anyone and try to make as much money as they can. My experience at 16 was pretty much like that. They give agencies a bad reputation amongst college coaches when they do that because we work with a lot of good coaches and have good relationships, but in the beginning it was very hard to do that because they wanted to know who we were, who we dealt with, and if we sent them bad kids they'd never use us again. There are a lot of agencies that are just ripping off kids and not doing things the proper way. That made it hard for us. Luckily now we have great connections with schools in America, so we've got that reputation. That was definitely a problem for us in the beginning. You're still getting a lot of these small-time agencies trying to just make a quick bargain. A lot of kids do want to go to these schools and don't know how to, and will spend US$2,000 or US$3,000 on an agency trying to help them out."
Though Vidal's expertise initially lay in golf, Athletes USA works across a variety of sports – as Vidal puts it, "from American football to bowling" – assuming they are catered for by the US college system. "It depends on which countries the kids are coming from," he explains. "With our franchises most of their clients are soccer players, so that's the biggest in Europe. In America, it's football, baseball and basketball."
There is evident pride in his voice when Vidal talks about the franchises that the agency, which has its headquarters in London, has formed around the world – in South Africa, Germany, Australia and the USA – each office handling around 100 youngsters on its books at any one time. "We expanded the company because there's a lot of demand from kids who want to go to America and get sports coaching and many kids don't know about the opportunities. And when they know they can combine playing sports with studying, they love the idea of that. There really isn't anything similar to the America college system anywhere in the world that I've seen.
"We have a limit of around 200 [clients] for each franchise location simply because we don't want to have thousands of kids to whom we are promising scholarships and can't manage it, so we have a limit on how many we take. We are guaranteeing we will find something and, if we don't, we have to give the money back. We have to be careful we don't take on too many people."
As well as broadening the scope of the company, the franchises are also allowing Athletes USA to become increasingly involved in providing advice and know-how on how countries can develop their own college sports system, though Vidal freely admits that "it's a very hard thing to do." At the time of this interview, in mid-February, he is in Germany building relationships with a number of soccer clubs in the country. The idea, as Vidal describes it, is to "spread the word around." He adds: "What we've been trying to do in Germany is to have them send their kids to us when they kick them off the team, because we can probably get them scholarships in America. When they get kicked off the team at 18 or 19 they have no future, but we can probably find them something. So we're trying to help soccer clubs improve their image; this bad image of kicking kids off. We're trying that in Germany and are hoping to do the same in England."
Another venture about which Vidal is excited is the agency's new DIY Sports Scholarships scheme, which is essentially a Facebook-style service and resource centre for would-be young athletes online. For a one-off fee, a youngster with ambitions of being offered a scholarship with a US college can create their own profile online, which can be accessed by Athlete USA's database of 25,000 coaches. "You can put sports footage of you in action; information about yourself; there's information about nutrition; and what to do at the gym. It's a massive sports profile centre where coaches can view the kids online, and we have over 25,000 email-able coaches so kids can actually go on, email a coach for information and get in touch that way. It's a revolutionary method. There's nothing quite like it. We're hoping it's going to be a big success. We've already got a lot of interest from lots of people in different countries, and so it's definitely going to be a different type of recruitment programme as well as cost effective for many people."
The service allows young athletes, to some extent at least, to control their own destiny – "they start marketing themselves" – as well as offering advice on how to apply and other, more practical elements of a scholarship, such as visas and entry tests. "The idea really came from the recession," Vidal explains. "We noticed it was getting harder for kids to sign up because money was tighter and we also noticed more demand from Africa, from South Africa, because the World Cup is there and they want to go to the US to play soccer. We had all the information so we just decided to pool it into one area and give the kids the control to do things themselves. It looks like it will be a big programme; there's lots of interest already. Since we started, we've evolved because we had initially a couple of hundred members at the beginning; now we've got thousands of members."
At the top level of the programme, which costs around UK£2,000 to join, Vidal and his team take responsibility for many of the elements of securing a scholarship. "We find the coaches – we have over 20,000 emails of coaches of different sports – then find the offers and present the kids with the offers we have. If they're not happy with the offers, we search for some more. Normally the kid then signs for that school: we help the kid get over there, help them with a visa or flights. We work with a number of airlines and, once they're out there, it is up to them to perform well. But we will also help when they finish in America: if they want to go professional, we will help them try and get into a professional team. We have a few basketball players who have actually come to European teams. It's not just going to college; it's after college."
The after-offer service is another area where Vidal thinks he has stolen a march on other agencies in the market.
Indeed, though Vidal believes scholarships in the US can be secured without using an agency, he says: "it's a very difficult thing to do." When asked to expand on that, he explains: "You'd have to know where to look, make the contacts and you'd probably contact the wrong schools. I wanted to go to Stanford as that's where Tiger went – you dream of following the best – and I wasn't academically good enough to go there. You don't realise that because you want to aim as high as you can but you're probably wasting your time. That's why we've made the new programme coming in March so, instead of having to go on each school's website and look through the information, you have it all there. It will definitely help the kid who wants to do it themselves."
And he insists that, thanks to his company's ever-increasing network of coaches, which are now spread far and wide across every major educational establishment in the US, that young athletes have rarely had such a golden opportunity to secure a scholarship in their chosen discipline.
"Coaches get thousands of emails from kids every day; they are going to look more closely at the ones that come from Athletes USA because they know our agency, so there will probably be a bit more of a chance."