Posted On: 09/20/19 11:47 AM

Answer a need, fill a hole in the marketplace, build a better mousetrap. These are the things, we are told, that make for a successful business enterprise. Nick Carroll and Jake Phillips knew first-hand that it was difficult for most high school basketball players to get noticed in their quest to be recruited and play in college. They knew it because they had lived it as high school players, Division 3 college athletes and later as college coaches. That’s how Prep Network was born.

“I think Nick and I had both experienced it,” Phillips said. “We had both seen that there was a void when it came to the NAIA, D3 and JUCO-level kids. Even recruiting at the D3 level you had to work really hard just to find player lists and know who you should be targeting.”

So they solved the problem. Today the organization consists of nearly 50 basketball websites, more than 30 player showcases, and a shiny new tournament circuit that saw almost 700 AAU teams compete this summer at 19 events in 15 states. They also own Prep Girls Hoops which, with the addition of three new markets this week, is now in 20 states. “We have been fortunate,” Phillips said, “and it has been a lot of fun.”

Team members working at the Prep Network offices in Maple Grove, Minn. have a visual reminder of the far-reaching impact the company’s 50 websites have.

Before we get too deep into the weeds here let me tell you why I am writing this story. It’s not because Prep Girls Hoops needs the PR, and nobody asked me to write it. I’m doing it because people in the gym are constantly asking me about what we do, who we are and why we do it. As a former entrepreneur, I also think it’s a really nice story about a couple of young guys with an idea that worked.

Co-founder Nick Carroll

Carroll played high school ball at Cretin-Derham Hall, college at Hamline and coached at Augsburg. He is currently the boys coach at Totino-Grace. Phillips played at Brainerd High School, went on to compete for Carleton College and also coached at Augsburg. Carroll started Northstar Hoops Report in 2012 to cover boys basketball in Minnesota and Phillips joined him in January of 2013. The response from the regional basketball community was enthusiastic right out of the gate. “College coaches were eager to subscribe,” Phillips said. “Right away we had every NSIC coach and every MIAC coach.”

For those of you not familiar with college basketball in Minnesota, NSIC is the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, an NCAA Division 2 league with nine of its 16 teams in the state. The MIAC is the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which includes 13 NCAA Division 3 schools in Minnesota.

Co-founder Jake Phillips

The business grew quickly and by 2014 it was Carroll’s full-time job. Phillips went full-time in May of 2016 and by that summer they had hired their first two employees, web developer Travis Anderson and communications manager Jared Nelson, who now oversees editorial content and nearly 200 writers across the country. “We decided to test it in other states and the rest is history,” Phillips said.

The business model is really quite simple: go where other basketball media are not. “From the beginning it has always been about where we can deliver the most value,” Carroll explained. “If there is a certain part of the market that isn’t being covered in a particular state then that is where we go.”

The genesis of Prep Girls Hoops

In the fall of 2013 Phillips and Carroll  entered the realm of girls basketball for the first time, launching Northstar Girls Hoops in Minnesota. It was writer Marc Hugunin who built a following for the website. He had a long history in Minnesota basketball, playing a variety of roles. He knew people, attended a lot of events and had a good eye for talent. A number of other writers contributed along the way.

Marc and I had been watching games together for nearly two years when he finally convinced me that I needed to become a contributor. As a former sportswriter who had fallen in love with the women’s game, it seemed like an obvious choice. Well obvious other than the fact that I already had a full-time job. Now I pretty much have two! I officially came on board at the beginning of the AAU season in 2017. In 2018, the website was re-branded as Prep Girls Hoops and has been growing ever since.

“Even in the early days when we were only covering the boys side we had a lot of interest in growing the girls side, as well,” Phillips said. “At the time we just didn’t have the people, the time or the resources to do both at once. As we established Prep Hoops as the authority on the boys side we finally felt we had the ability to do more for girls. It was really about having the resources to do it right.”

One of the coolest things about covering girls basketball is how much the community values what we do. Oh we get our fair share of cranky people, too, but most of the players, coaches and families we encounter are pleased to see the coverage. The college coaches are happy to have a reliable, independent source of information about potential recruits.

“There are a lot more people out there on the boys side writing and holding events and that type of thing. On the girls side people are just so appreciative of what we do,” Phillips said. “We get a lot more comments from coaches, a lot more emails and messages and phone calls.”

Anna Counts of Minot State University is a great example of how Prep Girls Hoops can raise a player’s profile. She was an unrecruited senior with few options when we wrote about her. Minot coach Mark Graupe read the story, watched Counts play as a result, and offered her a scholarship to play Division 2 basketball.

New opportunities for girls

The latest opportunity created by Prep Network are the Prep Girls Hoops Top 250 Expos. These showcase events have been hugely successful in boys basketball across the country. The first girls version will be held in Minnesota on Saturday, Oct. 5 at Burnsville High School. “We have always established websites in new markets before running events. People start to recognize the brand and realize that we cover players at all levels,” Phillips explained. “Then it’s easier to operate events because players know if they play well they’ll get covered.”

Carroll runs the events side of the business, and he believes the time is right for the girls showcases. “Because we already had the template in place on the boys side the girls side has now grown a lot faster. I think you will see us go from four showcases this year to more than 20 next year,” he said. “On the girls side there are an equal number of players who are working their tails off and have an interest in playing college basketball. They can use this as a vehicle to create opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Response to the Top 250 Expos has been incredible in Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois. Despite going head-to-head with the volleyball and soccer seasons, players of all levels are signing up to demonstrate their skills and improve their profile with college coaches.

The appetite for coverage of college basketball prospects appears to be insatiable, as well. Prep Network now has 16 full-time employees and nearly 200 writers nationwide. It publishes more than 1,500 articles and  generates more than a million page views per month. More than 500 colleges from over 100 conferences now subscribe. There’s even a volleyball site – Prep Dig – following the same model.

“There are no gender boundaries or sport boundaries,” Carroll said. “If you can produce valuable content that college coaches are interested in, using a platform that brings media members and college coaches together, it is really ‘fill in the blank’ as far as what the gender or sport is. That’s what makes us so excited to continue to grow it. There just doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”

Anna Counts photo courtesy of Minot State University Athletics.