Slickly produced, often including musical accompaniment and props as gaudy as airplanes and sports cars, the college-commitment video has become an essential element in the high-stakes mating game that is big-time college recruiting.
Once, an athlete committing to a college needed only to put pen to paper. Then came school library news conferences attended by parents, coaches and maybe a reporter or two. Eventually the ritual evolved into a kind of shell-game, with multiple college hats or T-shirts substituting for the shells.
But none of those national signing day traditions was enough for a new generation of sports stars, high-school youngsters who grew up intoxicated by social media, immersed in the visual allure of Instagram and YouTube.
Inspired perhaps by the now ubiquitous gender-reveal productions, today’s athletes are creating elaborate videos not only to impress their on-line community but to disclose their accomplishments, their personalities and, usually in some dramatic fashion, their college choices.
“It’s just grown and grown,” said Jalen Roberts, whose Philadelphia-based JayDoe Films has created them for athletes here and elsewhere. “Every kid wants a commitment video. They can’t just flat-out say, 'I’m going here.’ They need a video to go with it. It used to be if you were a highly recruited kid, you put three hats down on a table and picked up the one for the school where you were going. Now it’s a whole show."
The story arcs in those shows vary widely. Some athletes simply string together high-school highlights. Some provide voice-over narratives to a biographical collection of photos or video clips. And in the more cinematic productions, others have assumed the role of a superhero or a fictional figure like Rocky Balboa.
“Some have a theme. Some are thought-out. And some are just pictures,” said Roberts. “Sometimes they can be deep. One kid wanted to start in North Philly, at the house of his grandmother, who’d just passed away. Everybody has their own story and when it’s time to commit they want to tell it. The videos really bring it all together. All the places. All the mentors. All the hours in the gym. They’re about showing the journey. And if you tell it the right way, it’s like a little movie.”
While they satisfy a public curiosity and help the player establish an identity, these vanity videos also serve an unintended purpose. They provide colleges with visual proof of a recruit’s allegiance. And, posted on those schools’ various online sites, they also can attract more athletes.
“It’s a marketing tool,” said Roberts. “The schools pump them out on their social media or wherever and they can say, 'Hey, this guy committed. He might be a guy you played with or a guy you might want to play with. Here’s his video. We hope yours is next.’ ”
The videos generally are done for free (“It helps you and them,” said Roberts.) They’re most popular with elite football and basketball players, but run-of-the-mill athletes sometimes want them too. And often they’re years in the making.
Roberts has done some for youngsters announcing their high school choices. And Kee Vandaway, another Philadelphia videographer, is doing one for Jada Williams, a ninth-grade basketball phenom from Kansas City.
“She already has 24 offers,” said Vandaway, who typically does 10 to 20 such videos a year.
No one is quite certain when this trend got started, but it seemed to blossom in the last five years with the growth of the video-sharing network Instagram.
In Philadelphia, one of the first and most striking examples came in 2016 when St. Joseph’s Prep running back D’Andre Swift starred in a slick “Rocky” takeoff that revealed Georgia as his landing place.
It opened with Swift on the iconic Art Museum steps, then followed the teenage star on a spirited jog past several other Philadelphia landmarks. At its conclusion, Swift and the crowd that had joined him arrived at the place where he’d discovered football, Enon Tabernacle Church on Cheltenham Avenue. There, painted on a parking lot, was Georgia’s familiar “G.”
“He was telling a story that he was that he was from Philly, that he was the new Rocky,” said Roberts.
A year later, Imhotep Charter’s Isheem Young, who subsequently de-committed and landed at Iowa State, used one to reveal his choice of Penn State. At its conclusion, he and several others at a backyard party dove into a swimming pool whose waters magically morphed into the Nittany Lions’ logo.
Swift’s video was created by Bleacher Report. That sports website had been one of the genre’s busiest practitioners. But it recently stopped producing them, leaving the field wide open for amateur and professional videographers.
“There are so many now I can’t even count,” said Vandaway.
And as the competition increased, so has the push for more creativity.
In one from 2016, safety Deontay Anderson, now at Houston, parachuted out of a plane. While descending, he dodged the logos of many of the schools recruiting him. Then, upon landing, Anderson opened his shirt to display a Mississippi tee.
A video produced for Tahj Rice, a highly recruited D-lineman from Kentucky, included Hollywood-worthy special effects. While rescuing a damsel in distress, Rice employed various superpowers to vanquish villains in college T-shirts. Just when it appeared he’d selected hometown Louisville, he looked into the camera and said, “Nope.” The last shot was him in a Duke gear.
Linebacker Chaz Ah You emerged from a helicopter that landed on Brigham Young’s 50-yard line. Jack Jones, now at Arizona State, was interviewed by hip-hop star Snoop Dog before announcing his choice of Southern California. Running back Kahlon Laborn’s prop for his college reveal was a Lamborghini bearing Florida State’s logo,
“I normally ask the players what their vision is,” said Vandaway. “I don’t direct it. I let them pick and choose what they want, how they want it shot. I’m working on one now with Malik Griffin [Neumann Goretti’s senior running back]. He’s walking down the street, talking about how he got started. He wants some old footage in there from back in the day. Then he’s going to open his shirt up, put his hat on and announce where he’s going.”
As much as these videos might appeal to the egos of young athletes, Vandaway said, it might be a more basic human desire, a quest for acceptance, that’s driving their popularity.