College Teams And Sponsors Push Digital To Grow Without Sports

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  • With the coronavirus pandemic wiping out the remainder of the college athletics season, teams and sponsors are turning to digital and social media to fill any void.
  • College sports programs like Navy, Penn State, and Texas are using everything from virtual tailgates to #WallpaperWednesday to work with its sponsors.

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Photo Credit: Ronald Cortes-USA TODAY Sports

Many aspects of the sports industry are struggling to adjust to the wave of cancellations and postponements caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Since mid-March, with few marquee events, sponsorship departments across the globe have had to be creative with how – and where – to reallocate their funds. 

Since no college sports are going on right now, Navy is working with its sponsors to fulfill contractual obligations through its social media presence. 

Recent social media posts have seen Navy incorporate USAA – the presenting partner of the Army-Navy football game through at least 2025 – into its content. On April 30, Navy and USAA co-hosted a Facebook Watch live party that re-broadcasted Navy’s 31-7 win over Army from December 2019. Thus far, the video – which clocked in at over two hours – has drawn more than 9,200 views. 

Another Navy-USAA branded video followed on May 5, imploring viewers to visit the former’s website to buy tickets to Army-Navy on December 12. With assistance from Navy’s ticket sales department, the video has generated more than 19,000 views, becoming one of the program’s most successful posts in recent months. 

Navy has also worked closely with its apparel manufacturer, Under Armour. Recognizing that its seniors’ seasons were cut short, Navy and Under Armour – along with fellow Navy sponsors Papa Johns, Select Event Group, Redd’s Automotive, and Eggcellence – worked together to celebrate Navy’s graduating seniors from its men’s lacrosse team.

Navy and Under Armour also joined together to relive the long-standing rivalry with Army. One Twitter post encouraged followers to partake in the #NavyPassport Challenge by ordering takeout or delivery from one of Navy’s restaurant partners. Those who engaged in the initiative entered into a raffle with the grand prize being a trip to see Army-Navy in December. 

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Other pieces of content saw Navy ask fans to pick their three-favorite jersey and helmet designs from past Army-Navy games. The post has quickly become one of Navy’s most popular since last year, with an engagement rate exceeding 22%.

By prioritizing social media ideas that stress quality over quantity, Navy Athletics’ monthly engagement rates have steadily increased. In February, its engagement rate stood at 1.8%; since then, it has risen to 2.1% and 2.3% in March and April, respectively. Mid-way through May, its engagement rate is 2.4% – one of its best months dating back to November 2018.

“I think the last few weeks have been interesting, and it’s been really awesome to see the different ideas that all these schools and teams have come up with to engage their fans,” Kevin Spillman, Navy Athletics’ director of marketing and promotions, said. “It’s been fun to be a part of that, and I think there’s a lot of stuff we’ve been able to do that we wouldn’t have done otherwise if this wasn’t going on.”

After initially beginning with posts highlighting Penn State sponsors on social media, Chris Grosse, the school’s assistant athletics director for marketing, saw an opportunity for the football team to host a virtual tailgate. 

On April 18, the Nittany Lions’ football team held their Blue-White Virtual Tailgate to honor what normally is the start of spring football. It also served as a chance for them to interact with both their local and national partners.

In partnership with the Nittany Lion Club, fans were asked to share screenshots of their virtual tailgates to enter into a Nittany Lion Club Virtual Tailgates of the Game contest. Using the #BWVirtualTailgate hashtag, the club also asked fans to submit their favorite tailgate recipes for a chance to be featured in a virtual tailgate recipe book, presented by AT&T, on the Nittany Lion Club website.

Additional sponsored content came courtesy of a trivia contest hosted by potato chip brand Utz. Other sponsors like Pepsi, Penn State Health, and Highmark had their logos placed on all the graphics and websites related to the virtual tailgate, Grosse said. 

Bringing their sponsors into the experience brought thousands of eyeballs to the Nittany Lions’ virtual tailgate. According to Grosse, more than 8,000 people participated in the one-day event, with Penn State football reaching more than three million people and helping #BWVirtualTailgate trend in Pennsylvania.

“We were able to bring six to eight different sponsors into this initiative,” Grosse said. “This was something that just kinda came out of nowhere. It was nothing that we had planned on doing – obviously leading into the spring – but it was a good idea that we took, and we were able to offer this inventory up to them.”

Like many other teams, Texas Athletics hosts its #WallpaperWednesday series every Wednesday. However, Marc Jordan, Texas’ assistant director of social and digital strategy, said the school  was one of the first sports properties to make it available to its 20 varsity sports clubs and to have it sponsored.

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Texas’ presenting partner for its #WallpaperWednesday series is ATX Web Designs, an Austin-based website designer. 

Both fan engagement and response to #WallpaperWednesday has been highly positive. On April 1, Texas Athletics and ATX Web Designs worked to make custom wallpapers for Twitter users, who were asked to post their last name, a sport they want, and a two-digit number. As of May 18, that post has more than 299,245 impressions and 47,054 total engagements – and has become Texas’ most-engaged post since March 12. 

The #WallpaperWednesday series has even driven business opportunities for Texas, Jordan said. The athletics department has generated more than 2,000 leads from people requesting wallpapers. Although Jordan knows that budgets are tight right now, he sees the long-term potential of turning some of those leads into new sponsors. 

“I think many channels have fatigue and don’t know how to move forward, and credit to our team for constantly trying to find a different way to do things and to find a different avenue to speak to our fans,” he said. “Not everything has been a winner, but we’ve been very lucky to have such engaged fans. It’s such an engaged following because when we do try new things, they still support us, and they still engage with our content.”

It has been an interesting couple of months for sports worldwide. Even with the cancellation and postponement of nearly every major sporting event, Navy, Penn State, and Texas continue to see increases in their respective social media presences.

Spillman is impressed by the different ideas – from supporting local businesses to virtual tailgates – that have emerged out of college athletics in recent weeks. While a world with sports is better than without, he believes that the coronavirus pandemic could be the catalyst for a new era of college sports. 

“Obviously, I’d rather have our season back over the cool ideas and engaging things, but I would just hope that moving into the future, maybe this was kind of a turning point for the industry,” he said. “Are we putting out the most engaging content? Are we keeping engagement as the first thing that we think about when we’re coming up with social media strategies? I think it’s really important to just not fall into the same thing of just let’s slap a logo on things – really try to understand what your sponsor is trying to get out of this relationship.”