By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers
(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in Newsletter of Intent)
Last March, a modest-looking Blogspot website called “Ultimate Sports Insider” published a post titled, “Risking prosperity in college sports.” To however many (or few) of its readers, it offered these sage words about the underlying dark forces of intercollegiate athletics:
Systemic pressure to win, life-changing wealth, status, social media and institutional brand consciousness are powerful dynamics contributing to the current state of affairs. Yet each negative story erodes the prosperity of college athletics. It’s time to use our prosperity to fix the front porch and rebuild the core of college athletics – holistically educating and developing student-athletes without exploitation.
The author of the post — and the creator of the blog — is Michael Cross, a man of multiple hats whose day job is as the assistant athletic director in charge of “new business development” for Penn State, an athletic department all too familiar with exploitation. Cross was hired by the Nittany Lions in 2015, after he left his post as athletic director at Bradley with two years remaining on his contract — presumably a departure not of his choosing. According to the private university’s tax filings, Cross had been earning $267,750 in annual pay as one of the top-paid athletic administrators in the Missouri Valley Conference.
But Cross has more than made up for the demotion, financially anyway, with what the kids might call a side hustle. Cross and his wife, Jennifer, co-own Princeton Leadership Services, an educational consulting firm that peddles a software product called Athlete Viewpoint, which makes money not from the sweat of college athletes — nor from their names, images and likenesses — but from their very thoughts.
The proprietary software is designed for use by college athletic departments in querying athletes about their experiences throughout the year. As we reported last fall, Athlete Viewpoint software is also sometimes used to gather, slice and dice data from NCAA-mandated exit interviews.
The company insists it’s all about the athletes, a position it codifies in its mission statement: “As athletics becomes more of a business, AV believes it’s critical to remember that students are at the core. Naturally, AV takes pride in collaborating with and supporting partners who prioritize the student-athlete experience.”
But in working to “prioritize the student-athlete experience,” a key component of the Athlete Viewpoint business model is that, in a metadata sense, at least, Princeton Leadership Services owns the expressed viewpoints of the college athletes it surveys. For someone who holds himself out as a “change agent” and “tireless advocate for the student athlete-experience” — and who publicly whinges about money-grubbing, status-seeking coaches and administrators ruining college sports — Cross’ extracurricular work begs for scrutiny.
While college sports administrators can, and often do, find ways to make extra money on the side, it’s unusual for one to be concurrently operating a college sports-related business that could conceivably pay them as much or more than their full-time jobs.
Through public records requests, we recently obtained several universities’ contracts with Princeton Leadership Services, which reveal the kind of cash Cross earns with this venture as well as some fine print that may raise red flags, especially amid the expanding debate over the personality rights of intercollegiate athletes. Conservatively speaking, based on what the company has previously claimed about its customer base, Athlete Viewpoint stands to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue. Consider the nearly $35,000 in fees its services have generated this year between just four universities that responded to our records requests:
- $3,995 from the University of New Hampshire
- $4,999 from Wisconsin-Eau Clair
- $8,000 from Illinois
- And $15,500 from Rutgers, for both the athlete survey and a custom “coach/staff review” project
Each school also paid the $600 annual license fee Athlete Viewpoint charges for the “dashboard” access to the data the company compiles.
One of the software’s selling points is that schools who purchase it can compare their athletes’ feedback to the other schools that Athlete Viewpoint serves, to see how they are faring. For the company to capitalize on this feature, however, it needs authority over the data — the athletes’ opinions. The company pushes to control this information exclusively, and for perpetuity, although it negotiates terms with the universities.
For example, in their contracts, New Hampshire and Wisconsin-Eau Claire agreed to serve as joint owners with Athlete Viewpoint of the data gleaned from their surveys. Illinois’ agreement makes the school the exclusive owner of the survey results, but permits Athlete Viewpoint to use the “de-identified data” in comparative sets for its other clients. Rutgers, according to a contractual memorandum, at first consented to Athlete Viewpoint being the solitary owner of its survey findings, but later revised the terms so that the “client is considered owner of the client’s own data.” A Rutgers athletics spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about what triggered this revision.
Athlete Viewpoint claims its software has already made a substantial difference in improving the lives of college athletes. And the product no doubt looks impressive, providing subscribers with technicolor graphs and a numerical rating system for how likely current players are to recommend the school to future prospects.
A glance at Illinois’ exit interview report, for instance, reveals in easy-to-read charts that Illini players in 2018 were fairly satisfied with their coaches and decidedly dissatisfied with their facilities. There are also direct quotes from players that put some anecdotal meat on the survey-data bones. “We need more athletic trainers/student interns on our staff,” reads one highlighted comment. “One guy is not enough for 30+ athletes.”
The tidy presentation is no doubt handy for athletic department professionals in the ever-escalating recruiting wars, and the product seems to have caught on. In the past five years, Athlete Viewpoint has blossomed as a business venture, reportedlycontracting with at least 40 universities, including Penn State, all while Cross has continued to be employed by the school.
In response to questions about how the university’s athletic department navigated the precarious path of having a staffer also serve as a vendor, Penn State Associate Athletic Director Kristina Petersen provided this vague statement to The Intercollegiate:
“After a thorough University procurement process, Penn State Athletics contracted Athlete Viewpoint. Athlete Viewpoint followed Penn State University’s RFP process and submitted all required documents. Any conflict of interest concerns were vetted through the process and were external to Intercollegiate Athletics. Penn State does not disclose financial information regarding our vendors.”
While Jennifer Cross, whose LinkedIn profile reveals no college athletics background, serves as Athlete Viewpoint’s signatory and principal agent, her husband’s connections have clearly paved the way for its growth.
For his part, Michael Cross has not been especially demure about his business interest, boosting Athlete Viewpoint in recent on-the-record interviews with Sports Business Journal and the Wall Street Journal.
As part of the company’s partnership with AthleticDirectorU, a web-based content platform for college sports administrators, Cross has also moderated web video discussions with other college sports officials in his capacity as Athlete Viewpoint’s co-founder. For example, here’s an interview he conducted last year with University of Chicago Athletic Director Erin McDermott, who also happens to serve on Athlete Viewpoint’s Board of Advisors.
McDermott declined to respond to a request for comment about the extent of her ties with the company, but another Board member, Amy Sirocky-Meck, the Title IX coordinator at James Madison University, told us the position did not entail a financial stake. Still, there are potential red flags here, too: One of Athlete Viewpoint’s clients is Tulane University, whose senior associate athletics director, Charvi Greer, is also on the Athlete Viewpoint Board. (Greer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Athlete Viewpoint’s arrangement with AthleticDirectorU — which includes a series of “Inside The Industry” surveys and an “Athletic Director Power Index” — represents just one of the new partnerships the company has been able to forge in recent years, as its tentacles continue to spread throughout the college sports industry. Last February, Athlete Viewpoint struck a deal to collect athlete feedback for all 14 Big Ten Conference members.
In December, Athlete Viewpoint signed on with CoSIDA, the professional organization representing college athletics spokespeople, to conduct a salary survey of its members. The company also now conducts post-event participant surveys for Women Leaders in College Sports, a non-profit organization. Weaving a web so tangled as to make Sir Walter Scott plotz, Jennifer Cross hosted a panel discussion in December at the Women Leaders in College Sports convention, which was sponsored by AthleticDirectorU, and which featured Penn State Associate AD Charmelle Green as one of its panelists. (Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour currently serves as the organization’s president-elect.)
Meanwhile, Michael Cross continues to burnish his reputation as a right-minded college sports reformer, having recently been tapped as a consultant with the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It’s not a bad situation for Cross, given his rather forgettable showing at the helm of the Bradley Braves.
For reasons that were certainly not all of his making, Cross’ Bradley administration presided over the dark days of the program’s recent history. Among his specific missteps was the hiring of basketball coach Geno Ford — who slogged through a tumultuous and win-starved tenure — and a much-maligned decision to relocate the school’s long-standing Red-White basketball scrimmage to a makeshift outdoor court on the banks of the Illinois River. On his current online bio, Cross boasts of having signed Bradley’s first-ever apparel deal with Adidas and asserts the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc claim that, “More than 80 percent of Bradley student-athletes earned a 3.0 GPA or higher during each of (his) last three full years as AD.” For what it’s worth, a Bradley athletics spokesman told us that the university is not currently an Athlete Viewpoint customer.
In an exit interview with the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star in March 2015, Cross plugged his Ultimate Sports Insider blog and spoke of the advantages of being less constrained by his employment. “The demands of this job prevented me from getting my thoughts out to the public as much as I would have liked,” he told the paper. Four months later, he took the job at Penn State and, the following summer, launched Athlete Viewpoint.
In 2018, Cross was rumored as a potential candidate to fill the AD job at Buffalo, his alma mater. But he ended up staying at Penn State and, shortly thereafter, was promoted to general manager of the Pegula Ice Arena, the school’s home hockey facility, in addition to his other departmental duties.
It stands to reason that Cross would have a much more difficult time making a go of his business interest if he were, in fact, running an athletic department. And, despite not serving in the title role, Cross keeps finding new professional footholds — like the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, which he was named to last summer.
Whatever his purpose, Cross’ entrepreneurial venture is a critical reminder that just as the public should be keen to the mercenarism in college sports, it should also consider the potential conflicted interests in college sports reform. We wanted to ask Cross about how he might address such concerns, among other things, about his work. But both he and Jennifer Cross ignored our repeated emails and phone calls over the last week, in which we sought their input for this story. Perhaps, for the sake of Athlete Viewpoint’s prosperity, it’s best that the questions only go one way.