Connect with us

Digital Media

Inside ESPN’s Snapchat SportsCenter Strategy

The show blends the best content with the best use of the platform.

Greg Esposito

Published

on

Snapchat

ESPN’s Snapchat SportsCenter is one of the newest offerings in the digital arsenal of the WWL. (Image via Snapchat)

Snapchat has never struck me as a platform myself or the brands I manage “need” to be on. That’s saying a lot for a guy who is practically addicted to social in all its forms.

Think I’m kidding? I was an avid user of Peach for about a week and a half, so that should tell you everything you need to know.

Sure, I have a Snap account to experiment and see what the platform is about but I’ve only posted a handful of times and rarely found myself even opening the app for any reason. That is, until recently.

In November of 2017, ESPN made an announcement that many found curious at best. They unveiled plans to launch a version of SportsCenter exclusively for Snapchat. For the first time, I was genuinely intrigued by the platform. What could be done with video that had primarily been used for short-form voyeurism and unconventional storytelling for brands? What could an established but struggling entity like SportsCenter do to reinvent itself on a platform completely different than the one it was conceived for and thrived on for decades?

It was these queries that led me to open the Snapchat app every morning and afternoon for the first week. The brilliant, thoughtful and humorous content, as well as the unique presentation, has kept me coming back every day since.

But how did the entire show come about, what goes into putting it together and how has pushing the envelope helped breathe life into ESPN’s flagship program? I caught up with the producers and some of the hosts who helped make it happen to find out.

The concept for the show started more than a year ago,” Emmy award-winning SportsCenter on Snapchat producer Timothy Dwyer shared. “We produced a weekly College GameDay show on Snap last year that served as kind of a spiritual predecessor to this one, and also worked as a proof-of-concept that something on Snapchat could be a viable option from a content and business perspective. Once that hurdle was cleared, I think developing SportsCenter for the next generation audience was kind of just a logical step.”

Producing College GameDay on Snapchat is one thing but it is a completely different beast to translate a heritage brand to a new platform. It was a responsibility Dwyer and his team haven’t taken lightly.

It’s an enormous responsibility,” Dwyer said. “SportsCenter is the pre-eminent brand in sports media and has been for 30 plus years. It means so many things to so many people –  myself included – that we have to make sure we were doing it justice, while also giving it some new sauce for the way people consume media today. The challenge and the opportunity of Snapchat is that a lot of the core audience doesn’t have a pre-existing relationship with SportsCenter outside of knowing the brand name and maybe following a social handle or two. A 15-year-old is just as likely to have never watched an episode of SportsCenter on TV in his or her life, so that gave us a little bit of a blank canvas to say, ‘Okay, this is what the ideal sports show on Snapchat would look like, regardless of the brand we’re inheriting.’ Obviously, it so happens that a lot of what SportsCenter does well translates pretty directly to the format, so the bones of the show are still the same as the franchise.”

SEE MORE: Executive Buy-In Helps Propel Dallas Stars’ Digital Strategy

With the concept solidified and the “bones of the show” in place, it was time to find the talent to man the show. The faces and voice defined what the program would become the same way Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and more recently Scott Van Pelt did on the television side.

“Once we had the green light for the show, we set out to find hosts you’d want to hang out with in real life,” said Steven Braband. ESPN’s Director of Digital Video. “That was super important to us. Everyone you see on the show has that quality – they’re simply fun people. We had to make sure we didn’t come off tone deaf to the platform, so no suit and ties, no desk, no long lead-ins. You can look at our show right away and realize that. Katie, Cy, Fitz, Elle, etc. all set that tone from the start and we think that is a big reason why people keep coming back.”

A large weight of carrying on the SC legacy falls in part on the shoulders of that aforementioned on-camera talent. While there is a great deal of respect for the SportsCenter anchors they grew up watching, for Cy Amundson and Jason Fitz, there was more enthusiasm than pressure to help redefine what SportsCenter is.

“I do what I do today BECAUSE of Sportscenter. Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen….Those guys impacted my entire life as a sports fanatic kid,” Fitz said of why he was excited for the challenge.

Coming up in the shadows of such legendary names and having to put his own spin on what they help build doesn’t intimidate Fitz.

“Excitement? Yes. Pressure? No. I’m one small piece of an amazing team that I trust will make every episode great no matter what I do,” Fitz shared. “The opportunity to be a SportsCenter voice to the next generation comes with incredible excitement and energy, but no one person on every episode is greater than the whole team that makes each day unique.”

A look at the “set” of ESPN’s Snapchat SportsCenter (Photo via ESPN)

Amundson was of a similar mindset when it came to the task of reinventing SportsCenter for a new platform and generation.

“If anything I felt excitement towards the possibility,” Amundson reminisced. “When they were putting this thing together they told us that they wanted them to be personality driven and let the hosts help shape them, so if anything I felt like it was a cool opportunity to put my stamp on the prestige even if it’s in a tiny corner compared to some of the giants of the franchise.  The main pressure I feel is trying to perform alongside incredible other talents like Katie, Fitz, Elle, and Treavor.”

While, like many of the SportsCenters of the past, the show is personality-driven, it is truly a team effort. With a younger-skewing platform, the content has to come off more genuine than ever with the entire show needing to feel more like a discussion than a dictation. To accomplish that the entire staff is empowered to bring ideas that are wide-ranging and fan-focused.

“My favorite aspect of building the show on this platform is that we have the freedom to talk like fans and just simply have fun,” Braband said. “Sit in on a morning meeting and you’ll realize that in two minutes. It’s not a meeting, it’s a conversation between a bunch of nerdy sports fans. I also love that we get deeeeep into what fans are talking about on the internet. LeBron may have dropped 40 the night before, but also, and maybe more importantly to us, a Cavs fan ate 115 Chicken Nuggets doing the Nugget Challenge during the game. The Nugget story (that’s fun to say) may be a bigger part of our show. At night (producing our show for 5am) we have the ability to let the video drive the show and sometimes don’t need to overthink the rundown. If James Harden has the crossover of the century against the Clippers – let’s just run that on a loop, multiple times in the show. It’s an unconventional thought for producers, but we have the flexibility to do that.”

It’s unconventional for the host as well. While on television you have 30-60 minutes or sometimes more to get the stories, highlights and news of the day to the audience, social media, and Snapchat, in particular, gives you seconds rather than minutes to convey a message and catch attention. It creates a truly one of a kind writing and hosting situation.

“This can’t be compared to any other project to me, because it’s such a unique set of challenges and priorities,” Fritz shared. “Hosting a radio show is about learning to speak in 12-minute blocks on a topic.  TV is often about setting up the people around you for roundtable discussions. Sportscenter on Snap is truly its own art. It requires the ability to write something you hope resonates but also primarily sets up great video.  You’re, essentially, co-hosting with a highlight to a medium that wants to know everything about a great game in 30 seconds or less.”

In order to deliver that message quickly, concisely and, most importantly, in an entertaining fashion it takes quality production, a sizable team and hours of post-production.

“The start of the day looks a lot like any other show,” Dwyer explained. “We begin the day with a full-staff show meeting, everyone pitching topics and treatments, and we set our rundown around 10 am. Whoever our talent is gets in and writes the show with whoever’s producing each segment. Because we’re working with more limited real estate – each show is around 5-7 minutes vs. the hour the TV show has – the writing becomes absolutely critical, making sure we’re not wasting seconds in the show. We shoot around noon, then the rest of the day is spent in post-production before the show goes live at 5 pm. A standard episode has a producer, an edit lead, talent, and four or five editors to package it all together.”

Oh, and it isn’t shot on an iPhone on the fly like most Snapchat videos.

We shoot with a conventional camera on an unconventional rig,” said Dywer. “We basically have a tripod stand that flips the camera 90 degrees so we’re able to have the full 1080p quality available to us with our talent standups because we play with the zoom so often on those. It’s a pretty basic editing trick, but it keeps the eye moving, so it’s important for us on this platform. Having the full HD picture means we’re never dealing with a low-res talent shot.”

A strong concept, edgy content and a sharp look means nothing though if the fans don’t enjoy the content. That hasn’t been a problem for ESPN’s newest crew. The initial response to the show both inside Bristol and outside of it has been extremely positive.

“You can see and feel the impact, not just from the target audience but from the halls of ESPN,” Fitz shared. “Sure, the people we aim episodes towards get it, and that is rewarding. But even the non-target audience has responded in a way that shows me how big this impact can be.”

It’s not just the anchors who are feeling good about the show, those behind the scenes also see the beginning of something potentially special.

“The response has been great,” Braband said. “Internally we have been able to show success metrics that let us keep producing the show we set out to create. We’ve evolved A LOT since show #1, but the core of what we set out to do remains the same. It’s cool to see how we get support all throughout the org charts at ESPN. Connor Schell and his senior staff have been extremely supportive of what we’re doing and at the same time, younger staffers at ESPN have been reaching out (unsolicited) to pitch ideas and submit suggestions for the show. That makes us better. Having a fresh set of eyes or ideas from smart people in Bristol only helps keep the show moving up.”

“Externally, we obviously have numerous metrics that continue to increase that we’re both excited and proud about. We’re trying to reach a new generation of sports fans and the data shows we’re doing that.”

Snapchat isn’t for everyone and every brand but ESPN has found the right mix of content and talent to make the platform not only work for them but also help a new generation discover an old fan favorite. It’s a lesson that we all can take when creating content. Just because something is from a heritage platform doesn’t mean it can’t be looked at in a new light and reinvented for social. The brands who continue to strive to innovate and re-invigorate what made them great originally will find a way to win in a competitive environment.

And who knows, by implementing that mindset you might just capture the imaginations of even the staunchest detractors of a platform. Heck, I never imagined I’d be an active Snapchat user. And I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the work of the SportsCenter team.

Proud husband & father to a young daughter. Student of social media & #SMSports. Social and Digital Media Columnist For Front Office Sports and host of the podcast The Solar Panel. Former Senior Digital Manager and voice of the Phoenix Suns social media channels.

Digital Media

Meet the New Creative Team for the Alliance of American Football

Thanks to a digital team filled with fresh faces and new ideas, a new professional football league is about to take off.

Published

on

Alliance of American Football

The Alliance of American Football (AAF), a new eight-team professional football league with strong backing, kicks off its first season on February 9. With that being just a few short months away, naturally, we are seeing the league quickly build out its staff with some quality names from across the sports business spectrum.

On the digital creative side, the AAF has brought in a veteran designer and content creator, Christopher Stoney, as its first creative director.

Stoney spent two years with the University of Central Florida athletic department, where he took on the role of assistant director of digital media. Knights fans have likely seen quite a bit of his work in their social feeds over the last few years during the program’s rise to prominence. Then, early in 2018, Stoney realized a lifelong dream of joining the NFL ranks as a graphic designer for the Seattle Seahawks.

During his time in Seattle, Stoney made contact with Ben Rose — the AAF’s director of marketing — as well as the organization’s budding leadership team, and was eventually offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Getting to work for the Seattle Seahawks was a dream come true,” Stoney said while reflecting on his experience. “I spoke to Ben Rose and we spoke in-depth about the league and about some stuff they have coming up. What he was telling me was blowing me away in terms of what they were looking to do creatively for marketing, social and digital. My eyes just lit up because it was everything that I was hoping to do professionally.”

READ MORE: How NASCAR Stays Up to Speed in the Ever-Changing Digital Space

Stoney began working on freelance projects for the AAF’s email marketing campaign, website, and the original eight teams in the league. At that point, the AAF was very happy with Stoney’s work and asked him to lead its creative services on a full-time basis.

Needless to say, Stoney is incredibly excited for the opportunity to build the league’s brand, as well as those of its teams, from the ground up.

“I look at it like there are nine brands (the league and the eight teams) that nobody really knows much about right now. So, that’s nine opportunities to impress somebody, to capture somebody’s attention, to deliver information and get someone excited for football. So, having nine opportunities to do that is just unbelievably exciting. You hear a lot about startup culture where people are just having fun and working hard, and that’s every bit of what it’s like working with the AAF.”

One of Stoney’s first tasks as the AAF’s creative director was bringing on two full-time designers to join him at the league offices in San Francisco and Tampa, Florida.

WATCH: Using Data & Analytics: Where to Start and How to Drive Value

“When I was going through a list of people that had applied, I was looking for people that were young, that were energetic, that were excited to be a part of something that was going to be brand new. More than anything, I was looking for someone who was capable of building a brand and owning it. I wanted someone who could take something that looked like it was heading down one road and bring it another way. “

The first position went to Dan Goldfarb, a designer whose portfolio includes big names such as STN Digital and Fox Sports.

Goldfarb wowed Stoney, in particular, with a brand study in his portfolio based on the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Stoney explained why this piece stuck with him.

“My favorite thing about that is he didn’t lean on any current styles of the L.A. Rams. He didn’t take anything that they’ve already done or created. He didn’t use them as a guide to make something. He took the Rams, stripped them of all of their brand and then built a new brand based off what he thought of it. So, right then and there, that was like a checkbox in my mind. This guy has never had someone to really give him a creative direction to build a brand, but he’s already got something in his portfolio that tells me that he could build a brand if he’s given that opportunity.”

Stoney also decided on bringing in Demetrius “Meech” Robinson, a University of Michigan alumnus who has worked with Rutgers and the Florida Gators in the past.

In addition to his past full-time gigs, Robinson’s various passion projects in his portfolio convinced Stoney that he was ready for this role.

“The one that really jumped out to me,” Stoney said, “was this one where he highlighted a lot of notable women in sports, and he made each of these designs that encapsulated the emotion of the subjects. It really spoke to me on how exciting it was to see this project that he had branded himself. It really showed me that he had an overall grasp of what good branding looks like for 2018 in digital media.”

Speaking with Degarb and Robinson for the first time solidified for Stoney that they would fit right in with the AAF’s culture.

“Right off the bat, I knew I had the two absolute top candidates,” he said. “They’re both excited. They were both really interested in what the Alliance was doing differently from other leagues, and they were both just hungry and wanting to create. It was phenomenal.”

READ MORE: Pac-12 Network Grows Viewership Thanks to Cross-Platform Integration 

With the league only fairly recently releasing logos, names, and colors for the eight teams taking part in the first season, Stoney and company have faced an uphill battle in creating the league’s digital brand. They have created something unique, however, that when complete, it will reflect the brand of football that the league hopes to put on the field: speed, precision, and excitement.

“It’s really hard to take eight or nine logos and color schemes and then make six months worth of content,” Stoney emphasized. “That’s basically what we’ve had to do. So, what I’ve tried to do is take a step back and look at everything from a macro scale. When I think of a new football league like the Alliance, that’s going to really be based on technology and speeding up the flow of the game. How can I tell that story in a brand? So what I’m looking to do is really emphasize the technological aspect of everything; the speed of not only our players, but of the game being sped up with less commercial breaks, no kickoffs or extra point kicks or anything like that.”

The key takeaway is excitement. The league is excited for the new brand of football that will begin the Saturday after the Super Bowl. Stoney is excited for the task ahead in building this brand alongside Goldfarb and Robinson. Curious new fans, too, should be excited about what this group is building.

Continue Reading

Digital Media

Pac-12 Network Grows Viewership Thanks to Cross-Platform Integration

The Pac-12 Network is experiencing an increase in ratings thanks to a record-breaking amount of live-event broadcasts and strong digital strategies. 

Published

on

Pac-12 - Sports - College - Media

November will be a high-water mark for the Pac-12 Network, and it’s unlikely to go down soon.

Launched in 2012, the network has undergone a substantial programming change over the past year to help drive new viewers to the property, said Dustin Rocke, the network’s vice president of programming and development.

When Rocke started with the network, the trend of cutting the cord and the rise of social channel roles in content had not yet occurred. He conceded when he started his career, he never thought there’d be a day he’d intentionally put content on other platforms. Now, he uses those channels to buoy the viewership.

“When we started, [channels, website, social] really acted independently,” Rocke said. “We were focused on the TV network and live events. Now our bread and butter is still live events, but over the last year we started thinking about other programming we’re doing.”

READ MORE: Superstars Help Showcase Importance of Social Media Value for Teams 

A network driven by college fan bases does hold an advantage against other leagues and entertainment networks since the followers generally have passionate, lifelong loyalties and will almost always tune into their school’s football and basketball games.

While the Pac-12 Network’s ratings have steadily increased in its first six years, Rocke said drawing people in from the pool of cord-cutters is still at the forefront of the team’s current mission. It is now making a more concerted effort in cross-platform integration; original clips of premiere programming — like the behind-the-scenes show “The Drive” — create compelling content fans might want to consume.

“The idea is to get people hooked and want to get more on our platforms,” Rocke said. “[It’s] catching them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter by creating cool content, and our goal is they’ll want more of it. At the very least, we want to cultivate the fans and reach them where they are.”

Some of the additional platform content does drive revenue, but Rocke said the real intent is promotional value drawing views back to the TV and monetizing the programming there.

“That’s really the win for us,” he said, as the Pac-12 Network is driven by live events, with more than 120 this November.

READ MORE: What Sports Marketers Think of IGTV

The network has 11 football games, highlighted by a competitive finish to the season, to elevate the busy month. In addition, it capitalized on yet another successful Pac-12 China Game which featured Cal’s men’s basketball team taking on Yale in Shanghai as part of its “Pac-12 Global” initiative on November 10.

The Pac-12 Network will also broadcast more than 250 men’s and women’s basketball games this year.

The games provide an opportunity to showcase the atmosphere of college campuses too. The network’s Saturday football show will make appearances on all 12 campuses this season, while it will make plenty of visits in the basketball season and then cap of the year with the men’s and women’s Pac-12 basketball championships in Las Vegas.

Rocke said the social channels are also important to draw in fans of Olympic sports, as the conference has more Olympic-sport national championships than others and televises dozens of high-quality matches every season.

“We’re trying to get people to understand other sports,” Rocke said. “It’s harder to develop those fans than draw in the ones that exist.”

As the network has matured, Rocke said the relationship with each school is well refined and helpful in producing intriguing content the network’s employees might not find without their ear to the ground on campus.

READ MORE: What Do Sports Social Media Pros Think of Twitter Removing Likes?

Rocke said his team regularly looks at other league networks and sports media outlets for content ideas and points of comparison.

“People want the all-access stuff,” he said. “We know people like that, but we also know we didn’t invent it. We know we’re not competing against those leagues for the USC fan that wants to watch a USC football game, but competing with the agnostic fan that has no ties and just wants to watch good content.”

Continue Reading

Digital Media

Why Samford Athletics is Investing in Digital Technology

Samford is growing engagement, revenue and brand awareness through a cutting-edge, efficient way to share images.

Published

on

Samford - Sports - Digital Technology

Photo by Kristin Twiford, Libris

Facing a budget and headcount reduction within Samford University’s athletic department, Kevin Young turned to create efficiencies this year.

For example, Young, the school’s associate athletics director for marketing and strategic communications, worked with the photo management program Libris and social media content distribution tool Socialie to simplify its photography workflow.

The system essentially streamlines the camera-to-photo-gallery process that takes place on the field and finishes in the press box. From there, a staff member quickly edits and adds a logo and hashtag. As soon as they’re uploaded, Socialie pulls them and texts a link to a team’s athletes before the game’s last whistle.

READ MORE: NeuLion College’s New Tool Makes Social Marketing Easier

“They’re empowering student-athletes to share content instantly, and as a result, they’re creating a wave of energy and excitement for the school and its followers,” said Andrew Fingerman, CEO of PhotoShelter, the parent company of Libris.

The students then can use the photos on their social channels, helping with professional images and Samford branding messages.

“It’s been incredible,” Young said. “We can expand our reach in an old-school manner, almost like putting flags in someone’s yard. We had to find a way to get people to notice us. We’re in Alabama; UAB is No. 1 in their conference and they’re not getting noticed. It’s all about Auburn and Alabama. I can’t afford a billboard, but we can do creative things like this.”

Samford started using the program in August, prior to the football season, and Young said the school almost broke the revenue record in five home games. The first game of the season nearly drew half of the campus’ 3,100 students, and Young attributed that to the use of this program.

The program came out of a conversation between Young and Socialie about trying to more efficiently share photos and track the engagements. 

Socialie came from Kristin Adams’ time leading social for UFC and working with UFC president Dana White and a roster of 400+ athletes around the globe as a way to help build their personal brands, promote the sport, and promoting their fights.

READ MORE: Samford Athletics Innovating How Communications Teams are Structured

“I had some money left over and realized it would save us a ton of time and a step in the process,” Young said.

Other schools have similar software in use, Young said, in the way they send bulk photos, but couldn’t find the integrated backend analytics. This was best for Samford’s needs to increase efficiencies within its athletic department.

“It allows us to track followers. We send them content and we can see that it grew followers this much,” he said. 

Samford hasn’t broken the process down for individual athletes, but Young said it could be done by creating rules based on tags. 

“The athletes come in, pick up their phone after talking to coach and post a great photo on social,” he said. “The days of crappy cellphone photos or videos are over. Social media is crucial in controlling the media, and branding is much more than a logo or graphics.”

READ MORE: UC Davis Athletics to Reap Benefits of Co-Branded Beer

“When the players use the photos, they just end up crushing the engagement. They have people following them who interact with [the photos] — and then it’s grown our followers.”

The software is mostly used for football, basketball, and baseball, but Young said it’s also been useful for smaller revenue sports such as tennis and gymnastics.

“We can go to an event two to three times a year and provide those athletes with all the photos they need for the year,” he said.

Young said it’s more than just sending photos to athletes. They can also request content from players, a practice that’s been useful in instances like Instagram takeovers. 

Young said there are still more ways for it to be used in the future — and is very happy with the first semester of its use.

“The return on investment is through the roof,” Young said. “I’m a small FCS school, with a fractional budget compared to some big schools, and we’re able to do it comfortably. It’s worth every penny.”

Continue Reading

Trending