This week, on our Twitter page, we’ve broken several stories of scouts hired and fired. Let’s take a look at the potential downsides and risks of a career in evaluation.
It’s who you know: Unless your last name is the same as an NFL owner, you’ve got an uphill battle. Nepotism is rampant in personnel evaluation and team administration circles. If you don’t believe it, look at the front office page on a couple team websites (here’s one glaring example). With few exceptions, you’ll find that these jobs are not purely merit-based.
Beating the odds: Of course, not every NFL scout or high-level executive had a dad who worked in the league, but no two employment stories are the same. I remember asking an NFL GM once how a young person gets hired as a scouting assistant. His response: “Why? You know somebody?” It’s very strongly referral-based in most cases. On the other hand, the Titans, for example, ask applicants to pursue scouting assistant jobs through the HR department, which is a great way to make it fair and balanced but also makes it doubly hard to stand out. And once you make a team, it’s like you’re always on thin ice. I work with one young person who’s a scouting assistant in the league. We talk all the time about how tenuous his position is. He wants to climb the ladder, but he knows how lucky he is just to be on the ladder.
No backup plan: Lots of scouts build a 20-year career, then one day their boss gets fired, the team cleans house, and he’s on the street. Now this scout’s probably middle-aged and has spent almost his whole life watching football games and evaluating talent. That’s an extremely limited skill-set, and only 32 organizations in all the world are willing to pay a true living wage for it. This means you spend your whole life trying to get back in. I remember about five years ago I tracked down a scout that had landed a job as an assistant o-line coach at a small school after getting sacked the previous May. My idea was to pay him a couple bucks, maybe $50, to get his thoughts on any potential NFL prospects he saw that season. He laughed at me, and was pretty dismissive about it when I finally reached him. I mean, I looked at it as a chance to throw him an extra tank of gas or a bag of groceries in exchange for a helpful conversation. He was looking at it as me trying to exploit his life’s work for milk money. At the end of the day, he was still waiting for someone to ride in on a white horse and save him, restore him to the life (and job) he once knew. Five years later, that still hasn’t happened.
No scarcity: Maybe 20 years ago, being a scout was an incredibly popular idea for a young person. However, in the last 20 years, with the rise of fantasy football as well as the multiple scouting websites and analysts around, I’d guess the demand has doubled or tripled. Everyone feels he’s qualified, and can use all the buzzwords. Then there’s the proliferation of sports management programs at universities across the land, as well as some services that prey on young people, teaching them that there’s a certain certification they can earn that will enhance their chances. All this means that young folks are tripping all over themselves, willing to work for free in many cases, for a chance to get aboard a team. They are probably far more qualified than ever before, but it’s still a numbers game.
Changing fortunes: Let’s say you work your way up to GM, and you start getting plaudits as a boy wonder. Or maybe you come from the right GM ‘tree’ or ‘family,’ and you are hired and attain instant success. Then your team misses the playoffs once or twice, maybe due to injuries or bad breaks, and suddenly your evaluation power is stripped from you. Where do you go from there? You don’t have the tools to prove yourself again, and you’re not doing the one thing that’s most rewarding in the business, so you either play out the string and try to hold onto what you have, or you resign and hope someone else is willing to give you another shot. Once again, very tenuous.
As I often say in this space, the rewards of working in football are great, and there’s nothing like pursuing your passion. Still, know the risks and the potential downsides.