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Let's Talk Some More About Satellite Camps

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Michigan is at the epicenter of a national discussion on players' rights. We try our best to break down what this means for everyone involved.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Sometimes to get a better perspective, you have to look back. (Matthew McConaughey may have said something along those lines once.) So, to start talking about satellite camps, let's go back to 2015 - to an article written by MLive's Nick Baumgardner. The title: "'Summer Swarm' Tour Could Kill Two Important Birds With One Stone For Michigan." And what exactly are those birds, Nick?

To reload and reintroduce.

"This builds a bridge in the unofficial visit season, they're trying to recruit Dallas, Houston, LA, all those big-time areas and some kids can't afford flights to Ann Arbor during this time," 247sports recruiting analyst Steve Lorenz says. "I think that's understated, especially if you're trying to recruit nationally. There's a period of time in the winter when you can see them and visit and be aggressive, then late spring-early summer is a spot where the schools closest to home are always around and that's where the visits happen.

"This will keep Michigan in the national news and it'll give those coaches faces and names with (players across the country)."

The whole article has held up well and, in fact, gained new-found layers as the issue of satellite camps has morphed from a novel recruiting tactic into a national debate about the NCAA and the recruiting process for student-athletes. This is the second off-season that satellite camps have dominated the conversation, but this time around the tone has gotten more contentious, more grandiose, and more bitter. In a column two weeks ago for Sports Illustrated, Harbaugh framed these football camps around the very idea of being a student-athlete. "The incompetence of the NCAA has reared its ugly head yet again," he said.

A year ago, a common sentiment was that these camps would eventually face some kind of censure from the NCAA. But now that the moment is upon us, a lot more seems to be at stake. If these camps do end up being banned - which, in the long term, seems very unlikely - Harbaugh and Michigan will have lost a battle, but gained a lot of traction along the way. Regardless, either way this isn't just about Michigan anymore.

Through intense media coverage, the players have stayed focused on improvement. Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty

In a classic, sardonic piece this past week for SB Nation, Faux Pelini wrote about satellite camps by focusing on the entity that's on the verge of banning them. The NCAA, he points out, is an erratic governing body that does not look out for the benefits of its athletes. To put it simply, he writes, satellite camps are not about Michigan, or about the Big Ten, or about the SEC. They are about young people and the NCAA.

The NCAA has designed a very complicated algorithm to determine fair punishments for different types of rule-breaking, and because you do not work at the NCAA, you cannot understand it. Just know that the well-being of each athlete is always being protected.

Recent examples of NCAA punishments include having to sit out ...

  • one-half football game: Selling thousands of autographs, probably (2013, Johnny Manziel)
  • 4 football games: Lots and lots of cash and yachts and strippers (2011, many Miami guys)
  • 4 football games: Accepting $3,000 for autographs and being honest about it (2014, Todd Gurley)
  • 5 football games: Getting free tattoos (2010, Terrelle Pryor)
  • 1 full football season: Lying about being friends with Deion Sanders (2009, Dez Bryant)
  • 1 full basketball season: First positive drug test for marijuana (2014, Mitch McGary)

This increased focus on the effect camps have on players - especially ones in lower-income areas - is a late addition to the satellite camp debate, and some have called it a ploy by northern institutions to gain further access to recruits in the south. Despite these objections, however, the socioeconomic argument has gained traction with people who don't care at all about Harbaugh or Big Ten recruiting, and it's taken the debate to a national stage, where people have been mulling over the values of amateur athletics for some time.

It makes sense, then, that the argument from those in southern circles that coaches are using these camps for their own selfish gains is doing nothing to tamp down the fire. Likewise, the claim that Harbaugh is siding with the disenfranchised in order to gain favor with future recruits only seems to acknowledge the benefits that these camps have for poorer or 'far-flung' players.

The perspectives have been varied, but more often than not, they revolve around the opinions about the major players involved - that Harbaugh is a bully, or the SEC is an evil mastermind, or the NCAA is incompetent and selfish. These perspectives, held for some time, are now centered on something new, a practice that hasn't been widely used before but could, many argue, make lives better for thousands of recruits and their families.

Yet while the conversation has mostly stayed in the arena of mud-slinging, there are some intriguing deeper questions that can be asked about the effects of satellite camps and the best ways to regulate them. So, without further ado, let's tackle a few as best we can, and hopefully gain a clearer perspective about the various upsides and potential downsides of satellite camps.

How much do satellite camps cost?

Satellite camps aren't necessarily expensive, compared to many of the other things football teams spend money on. Last year's Summer Swarm tour cost Michigan $211,948, according to the Detroit Free Press, and that included stops in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Indiana, and California. Almost 94% of the costs came on airfare alone, and it's worth noting that Michigan took numerous assistants and staffers. Michigan held 10 camps total.

The other major player in the satellite camp circuit, Penn State, has declined to say how much their camps have cost, but there has been a dramatic increase in their recruiting spending the last few years. In 2011, the program spent approximately $250,000 on recruiting. In 2014, it was $1,391,332.

Much of the cost of recruiting, however, seems to be tied up to the cost of flying, even more than the potential costs of a recruiting staff. For this and many other reasons, satellite camps will not change the fact that recruiting is built on doing well in local areas, and that is particularly true for poorer programs. But even for teams like Purdue, local recruiting could become regional recruiting at a fraction of the cost Michigan has spent.

Let's go back to the $21,000 figure Michigan spent for each of its ten satellite camps, and look at how a team like Purdue could minimize some of that cost. If the program focused on areas within a 500-mile radius, Purdue could recruit heavily in Kentucky and Tennessee while relying on buses for equipment needs and scrapping private charters for first-class tickets. Exact numbers are impossible to find, but sending assistants on public flights can save as much as twenty times the cost.

Big Ten, 2014-15 FY
Total Revenue Total Expenses Total Revenue Total Expenses
Ohio State $167,166,065 $154,033,208 Nebraska $102,157,399 $98,023,037
Michigan $152,477,026 $151,144,964 Maryland $92,686,128 $92,558,535
Penn State $125,720,619 $122,271,407 Indiana $88,362,421 $88,330,530
Wisconsin $123,895,543 $118,691,112 Illinois $85,998,659 $87,163,188
Minnesota $111,162,265 $111,162,265 Purdue $75,637,694 $74,420,334
Michigan State $108,687,274 $108,283,151 Rutgers $70,558,935 $70,558,935
Iowa $105,969,545 $109,214,651

As a private institution, Northwestern doesn't need to report its earnings.

Financially, satellite camps would put more of a burden on Wisconsin and Minnesota, two programs that are hundreds of miles further from SEC country than Purdue or Illinois. But this is a two-sided blade; other Big Ten clubs would face a different kind of cost as southern coaches would be much quicker to target Ohio, Pennsylvania, the DMV area, and Detroit with satellite camps of their own, leaving the local areas that Wisconsin and Minnesota lean on unimpeded.

What will happen when southern schools come north?

First, let's review what effect satellite camps had on two recruiting classes: Michigan's 2016 class featured a total of seven commits who attended satellite camps, five of whom committed after they had attended one: quarterback Brandon Peters, running back Kingston Davis (both already committed), cornerback David Long, all-around weapon Chris Evans, and Flanagan teammates Devin Bush, Devin Gil and Josh Metellus.

Penn State saw a much smaller return: one kicker, one punter. Obviously, if a team were to run 30 satellite camps or more, it's very possible that half of a program's class could be made up of recruits who made contact through satellite camps. But due to costs and other factors, this isn't very likely. Southern schools will probably still rely on southern talent; a few exceptions could be Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, which already have experience working in the Midwest.

Still, drastic change is not likely. Programs with deep ties to their state will continue to do well, and others will try to reinforce and grow their place in the community to preserve a recruiting "home-field advantage." Ohio State will remain beloved in Ohio, and they will still recruit it successfully. Michigan will still do well in Michigan.

How will this affect smaller conferences?

This is perhaps the most interesting question regarding satellite camps.  Camps allow undiscovered recruits to gain offers from big-time programs - Josh Metellus was a Georgia Southern recruit, for example, before he pledged to Michigan - but most of the upheaval will come in the form of smaller programs and two- or three-star recruits. And with the Big Ten trying to open doors in the south, the Sun Belt Conference seems the most likely to lose some of the talent it might have gotten otherwise. Metellus is a perfect example of this.

However, the level of damage there seems minimal. Sun Belt schools would be able to recruit more players in more areas, and also attract more players to their own campus, following the same phenomenon that helped a once-humble Old Dominion camp attract more than 1,000 high schoolers - a number that could have been higher if ODU didn't eventually cut off registration. When a big-time program comes to visit, a lot of other programs benefit from the association and the interest.

"This is a win for both schools, but I think it's a bigger win for us," said ODU's head coach Bobby Wilder about that camp, which took place in June of 2015 and attracted 42 different colleges, including Penn State. Wilder added: "Penn State's name will attract a lot of quality players, [including] some four- and five-star kids on campus who've never been here before."

While some have made an argument that power programs with money to spend will damage the recruiting of schools like Old Dominion, that doesn't appear to be the case. There's a more persuasive argument, in fact, that satellite camps help these schools.

What does this mean for college football?

College football makes money. A lot of it. And while football subsidizes many other sports (not to mention NCAA pockets), football minds have been trying to access some more of that money to produce better football teams. This might come in the form of satellite camps, or a larger staff of behind-the-scenes analysts, or a $250 million stadium, or hot new coordinators, or a snazzier photoshop department, or a larger weight room, or a new video board....

If college football already feels like an arms race, as it does sometimes when LSU nabs Dave Aranda for $1.3 million a year even while the university is in financial peril, rest assured that it could quickly get to a point where "amateur" athletics loses any semblance of amateurism. Satellite camps are one more brick in the wall.

The NCAA has been desperately trying to prevent this. They have also been trying to avoid a conversation about how to fairly blend amateurism with a free market. Eventually, though, it seems inevitable that there will be profound changes in compensation for the players who make up a multi-billion-dollar industry.

This will probably not cause Armageddon.