Right skills, wrong place: How recruitment practices impact team demographics

Last year, a Ubyssey breakdown of athletes’ hometowns revealed a noticeable preference for domestic and in-province student athletes on UBC’s varsity teams.

Ninety-three per cent of Thunderbird athletes are domestic students, with most coming from BC, Ontario or Alberta.

For softball head coach Jennifer McKellar, this reality may come down to how popular a sport is in BC and how attractive UBC is to potential athletes.

“When you have the local talent and they want to come and they're good enough to come, you don't really need to look beyond that,” she said.

At UBC, recruitment is facilitated in varying ways. Some varsity teams host open tryouts at the start of the season, but a lot of teams are built before the season, by asking pre-UBC students to join.

These recuritment avenues primarily fall on the shoulders of a single person. For most teams, the head coach does the vast majority of the scouting and decision-making. With a significant amount of work and limited resources, they must be strategic in how they expend effort.

“Just like anything, you gotta prioritize where you spend your time,” said men’s soccer head coach Mike Mosher. “We have very few international students in our team, and it’s pretty clear why. I’m gonna prioritize what I know, and the players I know best.”

Both Mosher and McKellar said potential recruits are often identified in high school, either through them reaching out to a coach or a coach becoming aware of a player through their own social networks.

Overall, recruiters require familiarity to make confident roster decisions. Because of this, they have a preference for prospects they’ve met or watched in-person. McKellar noted her program tries to build early relationships with recruits so both parties know what they’re getting into.

According to Mosher, around 95 per cent of the prospects who receive offers from men’s soccer have been seen in-person.

Out-of-province athletes are scouted at camps or tournaments that UBC recruiters visit, but the resources to travel to these events are finite. Certain sports, like soccer, invite out-of-province prospects to UBC for camps to avoid flying across the country.

However, the football program is unique.

Shomari Williams is the only designated recruiting coordinator on a Thunderbird varsity team. While football head coach Blake Nill makes the final decisions on the roster, Williams is responsible for scouting players and bringing prospects to Nill’s attention.

“My primary job is to identify guys,” said Williams. “I’m always on the lookout for talent, watching film, travelling somewhere to see somebody and I’m the main guy who does that for the team.”

But even with a larger budget, Williams still prioritizes, to an extent, the players, clubs and locations he knows and is familiar with.

“I’m from Brampton, Ontario myself, so I love players from Brampton,” said Williams. “I have a good connection with players from Brampton or can understand some of the players a little bit better.”

Regardless of a team’s methods, one trend persists across all varsity teams: international students are underrepresented.

At UBC Vancouver, international students comprised 28.6 per cent of the student body but only 7 per cent of the varsity athlete population for the 2022/23 season.

But the lack of international athletes is not a reflection of a lack of interest.

“I probably get seven or eight emails a day that are just internationals looking,” said Mosher.

“We’ve run some open tryouts of late where there’s been like 70 players coming out on the field. It’s almost unmanageable,” said Mosher. “Most of them were international students.”

Despite this, only three men’s soccer players are international.

McKellar noted softball does try to recruit internationally, but are often not very successful.

“There are also a few less barriers to recruiting locally than internationally,” she said. “The cost for international [tuition] is extremely high, which is even more challenging than [for] our local athletes. Also thinking about housing, and support systems for those recruits.”

Ultimately, making a UBC varsity roster isn’t just about skill — it’s also about being in the right place and the right social networks.

— Additional reporting from Lauren Kasowski