In the last two weeks, scouts with decades of experience in player evaluation have been sent packing by their respective teams. How is this so, you might ask? Don’t you want seasoned people helping you pick the players for your team?
I admit it’s hard to understand. Let me try to make sense of it.
- There was a time when old coaches in the fourth quarter of their respective careers became NFL scouts for a number of reasons: they primarily scouted regions where they’d worked; NFL teams had healthy pension programs; and it gave them a chance to get away from the weekly grind of trying to win on Saturday. In many cases, these scouts weren’t career-minded. They were looking to wind down their careers but weren’t on a GM path. A big percentage of younger people who came into the industry had connections to owners and others in the business; there has always been a lot of nepotism in the NFL. However, there was not a substantial number of young up-and-comers because teams were mostly hiring scouts based on their experience.
- During this time, team ownership was dominated by the Maras, Rooneys, Wilsons and others who saw teams (at least partially) as part of a city’s profile and heritage rather than as an investment. Obviously, given the financial strength of the league and its teams, this attracted a new class of owners who were attracted to the game, but also were attracted to what teams would add to their respective portfolios. Think Dallas’ Jerry Jones when he first entered the league, or more recently, David Tepper in Carolina. As those new owners have gained power, they are less constrained by the traditions of the game. They have been willing to expand the size of scouting departments — in the last 30 years, most teams have gone from 5-10 scouts/advisors to an average of 20 — and, slowly, improve pay. At the same time, however, most are dumping pensions and other long-term investments in scouts. This has led to a tendency to make shorter-term commitments to scouts and evaluators.
- These new owners are also open to new ways of doing things, and have themselves often used technology and analytics-driven methods to accomplish business success. They are therefore prone to wanting to apply those ideas to football. Sometimes this translates, sometimes it doesn’t. However, it lends itself to the idea that intelligence can be gathered without the human element. This is exacerbated by the distinctly “human” aspect of scouting. Football evaluation has never been solely about what happens between the lines; injuries, personalities, the money involved in the game and other factors greatly impact a player’s NFL success. New-guard owners are also more prone to looking at their teams as a form of entertainment more so than a sport. A sport imparts values and a culture, whereas forms of entertainment are eminently disposable and agnostic.
- While all of this was happening, fantasy football was taking off across the sports landscape, giving rank-and-file fans a taste of team-building. Simultaneously, colleges were rolling out sport management programs to capitalize on this, promising undergrads a chance to live their dreams of working in pro sports. This led to a swell of candidates looking to break into the industry. Anyone on Twitter can sift through and find hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring scouts and evaluators. Just check their bios.
Bottom line, you have a business model where success is hard to measure, with people at the top of the pyramid lacking experience in hiring, and thousands of young professionals — many of them very talented — aiming to get in. Simultaneously, owners and executives are under relentless pressure from the media and social media on how to do things. It makes for a difficult path to getting hired. Good luck.