This is part I in a two-part series on the geography of Harvard athletic recruiting. Part II ran on May 8.
For all the differences between the recruitment of athletes and regular students at Harvard, there is one overriding similarity: a target geography. For athletes and nonathletes alike, the Northeast is Harvard College’s most fertile recruiting ground.
According to data taken directly from rosters listed on the Harvard Athletics Department website from 2009-2010 to 2014-2015, roughly 38 percent of athletes included in the data set come from nearby Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, while just under 5 percent come from the Southwest states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.
For this story, The Crimson scraped the varsity rosters from 2009-2010 to 2014-2015 listed on GoCrimson.com to create a data set of current and former Harvard athletes and their hometowns. Freshman crew athletes and students who were unlisted or listed with incomplete information were excluded from the data set.
One prominent feature in the data set was the (often disjoint) areas that different teams pulled from. Mapping the listed hometowns both highlighted recruiting hotspots and suggested regional trends; hockey players from the South were as rare a breed as volleyball players from the Midwest. Overall, California was home to the most athletes—with 15 percent of the listed players calling the Golden State home.
Coaches interviewed for this story said that the distribution of athletes is a product of where talent is aggregated. For instance, more than 70 percent of players to appear on the rosters of the men’s and women’s water polo teams in the data set were from the West, but the region—comprised of Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado—represented only about 5 percent of the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams.
Important recruiting factors, according to Harvard coaches, include connections with high school and club coaches, which can lead to a pipeline of talent. The five most popular high schools for listed varsity athletes—Phillips Academy Andover, Noble and Greenough, Phillips Exeter Academy, Deerfield Academy, and Delbarton—are all in the Northeast; each have strong connections with at least one athletic program. Good high school programs, like the Noble and Greenough women’s ice hockey team—which had eight alumni on the 2014-2015 Harvard women’s ice hockey roster—send waves of talent to Cambridge.
This isn’t to say the department limits its reach domestically. According to federal filings, Harvard spent over three-quarters of a million dollars on recruiting last year, scouring the globe for its athletes. All but two varsity teams have featured an international athlete on their roster over the last six years, and Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota were the only three states without an athlete represented in the data set.
This is partly the product of a diverse set of teams—with 42 varsity athletic squads, Harvard has the most in the nation—and a wider schoolwide recruiting net. The decision to expand the financial aid program in 2004 has been widely credited with an increase in the quality of Harvard’s athletic programs, allowing them to reach areas of the country that were previously untapped.
Of the top seven states represented in the data set, five are located in the Northeast. More than one in four listed athletes call either California or Massachusetts home, and nearly one in eight comes from outside the United States.
These trends mirror those in the student body. Enrollment data provided by Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven in March indicated that over half of the Class of 2018 hails from one of four states—New York, New Jersey, California, or Massachusetts. That number barely drops for the Athletic Department, with those four top states making up about 50 percent of the athlete student body. In fact, more athletes in the data set came from New York than Texas, Florida, and Georgia combined.
But this varies significantly by team. Although no squad is made up of a majority of international students, 10 teams saw at least a fifth of their members come from beyond U.S. borders. Seven had at least 30 percent of their rosters come from California.
Much of this trend is produced by the athletic prowess of the different regions, coaches say, but part of it is also produced by the academic orientation of different regions. Many of Harvard’s listed varsity athletes come from the same schools as their non-athlete peers. Of the seven high schools—Boston Latin School, Phillips Academy Andover, Stuyvesant High School, Noble and Greenough, Phillips Exeter Academy, Trinity in New York City, and Lexington High School—that combined to represent one out of every 20 Harvard students in the Class of 2017, four placed at least 10 alumni on the Harvard varsity rosters included in the data set. Milton Academy, a premier Boston private school, has sent more athletes to Harvard over the last six years than the entire states of Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Nebraska combined.
Fencing coach Peter Brand—whose team, as listed in the data set, had 58 percent of its members hail from the Northeast over the last six years—says that the recruiting often has as much to do with academics as athletics.
“The bottom line is that when I look at a prospect, the first thing that I look at is the academic numbers, because it doesn’t matter how good of a prospect they are, they have to have a good enough Academic Index [score],” Brand said. “It just so happens that a large number of [qualified fencers] are from the Northeast.”
Much of the curiosity about a recruit’s academics is driven by necessity; conference rules dictate a minimum academic standing that recruits must meet on the so-called 240-point Academic Index. The Athletic Department as a whole must be within one standard deviation of the student body mean—department estimates have pegged the number at Harvard to be 220, thought to be equivalent to a 2200 SAT and 4.0 GPA, although the conference does not release the precise formula.
These standards limit the pool of athletes that coaches can recruit from. In 2011, then-Brown Athletic Director Michael Goldberger estimated for The New York Times that the average college athlete “would have an [index score] of about 150.”
Another limiting factor is geography; for other sports, the numbers simply reflect where, at the club and high school level, the pipeline is strongest. Although some teams—like men’s heavyweight crew (which is almost 40 percent international students) and field hockey (almost 25 percent) recruit globally—more traditional American sports like baseball (one of the only Crimson teams without a single international player on its roster) are limited in their reach.
Harvard men’s soccer coach Pieter Lehrer has noticed this as well. While soccer is played at a high level worldwide, Lehrer’s team has had to limit its scope to remain focused in recruiting efforts.
“We really try to get more international players because the worldwide brand of Harvard is recognized everywhere in the world, and so it is very recruitable for us,” Lehrer said. “[However], it is just very difficult to cast that kind of net. That kind of travel and expense and the manpower to do that is very difficult.”
Lacrosse is the most extreme case of this phenomenon. There are 68 NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse teams, and only two are located outside of the Eastern Time Zone. Consequently, the team’s recruiting efforts are very focused in the Northeast—more than 80 percent of both the men’s and women’s teams in the data set come from the region.
“Traditionally, when I played here in the mid-90s, half the team was from Long Island,” said Harvard men’s lacrosse coach Chris Wojcik ’96.
Indeed, not much has changed: Nearly half of the players to start a game for the men’s team in 2013-2014 came from Long Island.
Often heavy regional relationships can be driven by strong ties to individual high schools or players. Wojcik has developed connections to the Long Island programs that have produced, among others, junior attackman Devin Dwyer and senior goaltender Jake Gambitsky.
The coach said in an interview last year that although the sport is becoming more popular in other areas of the country, the intensity surrounding it on Long Island, where high school programs like Garden City and Manhasset send multiple athletes to Division I programs every year, is unique.
“People certainly move to that town simply because they want their children to play lacrosse for Garden City,” Wojcik said.
Some sports lend themselves more to establishing a pipeline than others. While sports like heavyweight crew (Belmont Hill) and women’s ice hockey (Noble and Greenough) have deep, connected high school relationships, other sports are not structured in that way.
In particular, sports that are centered around club performance at the high school level tend to be more diversified. In tennis and golf, the maximum number of players in the data set recruited from the same school over the five-year span was two.
Brand, who took more than one fencer from just two schools over the last six years according to the data set—Harvard-Westlake and Lycee Chateaubriand de Rome—said this is because he looks at players with accomplishments that go far beyond their high school records.
“It is hard to go to the same school because the best fencers don’t come from certain schools but certain programs,” Brand said. “We don’t recruit fencers who just competed in high school—those aren’t the same level as people who compete on the national or international level. We target based on their individual performances on the national and international level.”
Of course, when Brand pitches his program—which finished seventh in the NCAA this year—to recruits, he can discuss a track record of success that many others cannot. Many other coaches struggle to gain the same recruiting purchase; in the hypercompetitive world of collegiate athletics, the use of athletic scholarships, which Harvard does not offer, and an ever-increasing recruiting pool has continued to level the playing field.
Yet, according to Harvard men’s volleyball coach Brian Baise, Harvard will always be competitive—even if students have a diversity of options.
“Harvard is an amazing place, and I feel pretty good about how we generally do in that process,” Baise said. “But there are other good schools and good programs out there. Kids have a lot of good choices nowadays.”
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.
Roster data for this story were taken directly from GoCrimson rosters (sample here). The data include only varsity athletes who were listed on a roster from 2009-2010 to 2014-2015. Athletes who were erroneously left off the roster on the website were not included in the sample, and the sample was not limited to recruited athletes.
The sample was refined to include only the sampled years because data was available for all six years for each of Harvard’s athletic teams except for two—skiing and women’s rugby. In the former case, the data were not listed on the website; in the latter, the team competed at the club, and not varsity, level until 2013. Freshman crew was not considered a varsity sport and so was left out of the analysis. The data were refined to include only athletes with complete data—athletes missing data were removed from the data set for consistency.
Using a Google-based geocoder, each athlete’s hometown was given a set of coordinates that were mapped onto a topographical map created using D3. All filtering and analysis was done in Python.