World of sports grows

Tuesday, June 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:01 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Blake Starkey, the Missouri women’s tennis coach, has made multiple trips to the Czech Republic and Moscow in search of talent.

James Wadley, Oklahoma State’s men’s tennis coach, has gone farther, making trips to Australia. Nebraska track coach Gary Pepin believes so strongly in the value of recruiting foreign athletes he sends assistants on more than five trips a year outside the United States.

“There is a big misconception about how expensive trips can be,” Starkey said. “It can be economical. And you find all these really good players you can stockpile.”

Starkey said he searches for almost a year to find the cheapest plane ticket. He said because of exchange rates, he has found hotels for $8 a night and meals for $3 in the Czech Republic.

The trips can prove fruitful as well as cost efficient. Three of the eight players on Starkey’s roster this season were from the Czech Republic. In 2003, in part because of those three players, Missouri made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament with help from those Czech players.

Starkey is one of many coaches recruiting foreign athletes. According to a 2002-03 NCCAA study, 9,787 foreign-born athletes were playing for Division I, II and III teams. This is a 69 percent increase from three years ago.

The trend emerges further with a look solely at Division I. At that level, 4.1 percent of male and 4.5 percent of female athletes were foreign. In 1999-2000, both were at 2.4 percent. Also in Division I, 21 percent of female tennis players, 21.6 percent of male ice hockey players and 25.3 percent of male tennis players were foreign.

Foreign-born players completely composed Wadley’s men’s tennis team, which reached the Sweet Sixteen last year. Wadley pointed to UCLA, which has won 15 men’s tennis titles, third most in the country. Four of the Bruins’ six starting singles players this season were foreign.

“You look at UCLA, which has its pick of U.S. players, they’re almost all foreign now,” Wadley said. “They can attract the better players in this country. If they’re doing it, that tells you something.”

Coaches give many reasons for the increase. Foreign-born athletes often bring more experience and a strong work ethic, which helps American players learn and improve. Foreign athletes also expose Americans to new cultures and promote diversity that otherwise would not exist.

“I really like the idea of a melting pot,” Starkey said. “The American kids befriend the international kids. It’s a strong educational piece.”

There is also a pressure to win. In 32 seasons leading the Cowboys, Wadley has made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, including this season, but his Sweet Sixteen berth last season was his third.

The drive to win pushes coaches to recruit foreign-born athletes, Wadley said.

“Coaches want to win,” Wadley said. “They want to be successful. They work 40-, 50-, 60-hour weeks. When I first got here, I had no foreign players. But if you know you can’t beat them, join them. (Athletic directors) want you to have a winning program. If you don’t recruit foreign players and you aren’t successful, you’re not here anymore.”

Gary Pepin agreed. He has served as coach of the men’s and women’s track teams at Nebraska for the past 21 seasons. He had 16 foreign-born athletes this season, including one from Jamaica. This spring, Nebraska’s women’s team finished third at the NCAA National Indoor Championships.

Triple jump champion Ineta Radevica from Latvia and Priscilla Lopes of Ontario, the 60-meter hurdles champ, led the Cornhuskers.

“If I had my choice of who I was going to recruit, it would be kids as close to Lincoln, Neb., as possible because they adjust quicker,” Pepin said. “But because of the level of competition that we want to compete at, we have to broaden the recruiting pool.”

Word spreads

That coaches want to win should come as no surprise. The expense of finding players who help win might be surprising.

Starkey said that about 80 percent of foreign athletes are found through word-of-mouth from former players or coaches. Although dangerous because this prevents the coach from seeing the player compete live, such recruiting is inexpensive because it requires nothing more than phone calls, letters and e-mails.

Competition can also keep costs low. If players from anywhere in the Midwest stand out, they might draw interest from every Big 12 Conference school and dozens of others from the area. A player from Florida or California will draw similar attention, with a more expensive plane ticket brought into the mix. Similarly talented players from Europe or Australia draw interest from a handful of coaches at best. This means less of a need to spend on constant recruiting visits, phone calls and letters.

“If you find one, it’s not as bad a recruiting battle,” said Mitzi Clayton, Missouri’s director of compliance. “You might find a diamond in the rough that not as many people know about.”

The numbers give evidence of the low costs of recruiting abroad. A careful Internet search can garner a plane ticket to Prague for less than $800. Add in five days of cheap hotels and meals and a visit can cost less than $1,000. Starkey’s recruiting budget for fiscal year 2004 is $5,000, which is a sharp drop from the $7,950 he had to work with in fiscal year 2002.

So a trip to Prague would cost roughly one-fifth of Starkey’s recruiting budget. If he finds two players, a low figure considering he had four foreigners on his roster this season, the trip has been worthwhile.

“In some ways, it’s more economical to go over there,” Starkey said. “It’s not like you’re going to the French Riviera.”

There is further evidence that coaches can economically recruit foreign players. A search of Missouri’s Web site found 20 athletes from outside the United States. These athletes played on eight teams. Those teams have had their recruiting budgets cut by more than $91,000 the past three fiscal years, according to figures from the athletic department. Missouri’s total recruiting budget has dropped by $104,726.17, to $581,723.83 during that time.

Consider another fact: Oklahoma State’s Web site showed the greatest number of foreign athletes in the Big 12 Conference for the 2003-04 school year, 46. The Cowboys’ recruiting budget for 2002-03 was $639,008, ninth in the Big 12 according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education Web site.

Missouri had the 11th-highest total of foreign athletes and the eighth-highest recruiting budget in the conference.

“Recruiting foreign players has been real cheap,” Wadley said. “Now coaches have a choice. They can go to San Diego or they can go to the Czech Republic.”

Top-tier athletic programs are not alone in recruiting abroad. Columbia College, an NAIA school, budgeted barely $7,000 for recruiting in 2002-03. This school year, they had 18 foreign athletes on five teams.

Columbia College’s women’s volleyball team advanced to the NAIA Tournament final last fall with team members from Kenya, Columbia, Serbia and St. Lucia Island.Columbia College coach Melinda Wrye-Washington’s expense budget for 2002-03 was $16,909, about one-tenth of many Big 12 programs’ budgets. She said she finds recruits by building a pipeline through foreign players who played before she took over in 2000, making phone calls and using the Internet to highlight the new athletic sites and academic benefits available at Columbia College.

“If I have a good player who wants to come here, I don’t discriminate,” Wrye-Washington said.

Sun not enough

There is another factor to consider. Most coaches agree the trend toward recruiting foreign athletes has taken off in the past one to two decades. It took time, but expanded talent pool has slowly increased competitive balance. California schools, which have an advantage in recruiting Americans because of location and weather, don’t have such an edge when it comes to foreign athletes.

From 1970 to 1998, all but one of the NCAA champion men’s tennis teams came from California. Since 1999, one champ has come from the state. In women’s volleyball, all but one champion from 1989 until 1998 came from California. Since 1999, three of five champs have come from outside the state.

“When you’re in the Midwest, you can’t get the best players to stay in Oklahoma,” Wadley said. “They’re going to go to California where the weather is better. …To get a kid to come from Australia here is easier sometimes than to get a kid to come from Oklahoma here.”

With these factors in mind, it’s likely the trend won’t end soon. Last season, 60 of 64 teams in the NCAA men’s tennis tournament had at least one foreign player.

“I’ll always take a mixed team,” Starkey said. “It’s a real education that is occurring both ways, and it’s a real good thing.”

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