Friday, April 2, 2010

Bluechip featured in Atlanta Business Chronicle article - 4/2/10

Bluechip Athletic Solutions was recently the feature of a story published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. The full article is featured below:
Reaching out to recruits
Firm connects top student athletes with college coaches using social media
Atlanta Business Chronicle - by Randy Southerland, Contributing Writer

When Steve Kennedy set out to create his own company, he recalled the advice of an early mentor who had told him there were two ways to make money.

One is to enter an established marketplace where you compete on price against abundant competition. The other was to “create your own marketplace” and let potential competi- tors follow you.

Today, Bluechip Athletic Solutions LLC is the leader in providing collegiate sports programs with multimedia marketing campaigns and communication tools that connect coaches and athletic recruits at more than 50 major universities.

Clients range from nationally known powerhouses such as The University of Alabama to Georgia State University’s fledgling football program that won’t even take a snap until this fall.

“I was trying to figure out how to create a company that would fill a void,” said Kennedy. “We found that void in collegiate athletics where the responsibility of a coach, regardless of sport, is to sell his brand and image to target markets.”

Traditionally, the job of recruiting top-tier high school athletes was a decidedly low-tech affair. Coaches sent letters to recruits or the more tech-savvy generated e-mails.

Getting to the athlete that could best help your program was often a hit-or-miss affair, in which well-known universities with national images had a decided edge over smaller or regional institutions. Most schools lacked the tools to get their message out to qualified prospects.

“The market could range from a recruit to their influencers such as parents, friends or high school and club coaches that might refer them,” said Kennedy, whose initial foray into sports was creating a highlights film for Georgia Southern University’s football program.

After investing considerable funds into the project, he showed the results to then head coach Mike Sewak.

Although he “loved it,” the program ordered just 20 copies — one for each assistant. The hang-up was NCAA regulations prohibited leaving recruiting materials with the thousands of prospects they contacted each year.

That’s when Kennedy had a revelation and asked if he could post the film on the university’s Web site.

Instead of creating videos just for recruits they could reach a wider audience by building a brand.

“That’s how part of the idea was born ... about putting football program brand image identity highlights on Web sites,” said Ricky Hleap, Bluechip’s co-founder, chief financial officer and chief operating officer. “You can’t call it recruiting video, but the general audience would be interested in that type of content, as well as prospective athletes.”

It was the beginning of a company that now allows coaches and prospects to connect using a wide range of high-tech solutions that extend far beyond just branded Web pages.

At the heart of the program is a database called Recruiting Radar that not only manages contacts but helps ensure programs are compliant with NCAA regulations.

Kennedy unveiled the product at a football coaches’ conference hoping to land just one client. He walked away with four.

Within a year, they were up to nine and the following year to 27.

That growth has continued as more schools have realized the value of their services.

Bluechip solutions allow athletic programs, which are often understaffed, to outsource the business of keeping up with advances in communications technology such as social media.

It also enables coaches to concentrate more on winning games, Kennedy said.

“As technology continues to develop, there will always be new channels of communication,” he said.

Today, Bluechip offers a total of 18 such channels of communication — including an exclusive social network for student athletes that boasts a total of 3,000 to 5,000 top-tier prospects at any one time.

Kennedy describes this service as a peer-to-coach network as opposed to a peer-to-peer one, such as Facebook.

The network solves one of recruiting’s biggest headaches — how to communicate via e-mail with young people who change addresses or prefer Facebook.

Athletes are attracted to the network because of the services it offers, such as tools for submitting applications to multiple schools and information and advice on the recruiting process. Coaches are able to send e-mail messages to them using what is essentially a private network.

As technology evolves, Bluechip allows sports programs to keep up while also not running afoul of changing regulations.

For example, a few years ago the NCAA banned the use of text and instant messaging to contact prospects.

That left many coaches scrambling to develop an effective e-mail campaign when many had failed to secure addresses for the student athletes. Bluechip’s technology provides coaches with a means to ensure their messages were getting through even without the prospect’s e-mail address.

The company’s success is due in large measure to “the degree to which it provides a differential advantage over existing alternatives,” said Ken Bernhardt, marketing professor at Georgia State University.

Bluechip has been able to turn what was once a very low-tech activity into a sophisticated and technology-driven activity.

With essentially no competition, the company has grown to the point that it now has revenue in excess of $1 million a year. It has also formed alliances with other vendors such as XOS Digital Inc., which provides sports technology solutions as a re-seller of their products, allowing them to reach a wider audience.

While coaches were slow to catch on to the value of these technologies, that has begun to change.

“With the recruiting world and college football, it’s a war,” said Matthew Bairos, XOS Digital’s vice president of products and services. “Our customers probably didn’t realize it five years ago, but now they know they really had a hole. They weren’t as efficient in terms of their recruiting. They had a lack of access to technology and even understanding of the benefits of it.”

On the radar: Bluechip Athletic Solutions co-founders Randy Hleap, left, and Steve Kennedy, the company’s CEO, have grown their staff to 13 employees since starting up in 2005. The Atlanta-based firm has set itself apart in the world of collegiate sports marketing by providing a host of multimedia services — including a social networking site that allows top student athletes and college coaches to connect.