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From the Field to Your Feed: The Foundation and Future of Athlete-Driven Social Media

Part One: Become a fan again

Blake Lawrence

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This is the first part of a three-part series presented by opendorse that examines the future of athlete-driven media. Part two can be found here and part three can be found here

I am here to talk about an opportunity. For all of us.

To fully understand, I’m going to ask you to take off your team lanyard, league credential, or press pass. Step away from the phone, photoshop, and the field. Dive deep into those feelings that brought you to this industry in the first place.

Become a fan again.

Take a quick trip with me.

It’s Christmas morning. Or your birthday. Or any other time you got presents.

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The connection between us and our favorite athletes is worth fighting for. The relationship is real. (Illustration by Blake Lawrence)

If you’re like me, you started ripping through the wrapping paper. Finally, you bust open that box and unveil the uniform of your favorite team. The first thing you do? Turn it around and look at the name on the back. Before you check the size or the stitching, you have to see who you’re repping.

You run your fingers across the name, the number, and feel like it’s game time. You jump to your feet and throw on the jersey, ignoring the gifts scattered on the ground.

As your new gear hangs to your waist, you feel like a professional. You start to imitate the skills of the star on your back. You feel motivated to throw a ball or sprint through a wall.

You wear the jersey the rest of the day (and maybe the next) until eventually, you’ve gotta take it off to be washed. As you lift the uni above your head to toss it in the laundry, you see that name. That name — and its owner, your new favorite athlete — will be etched in your memory for a lifetime.

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The future of media is here. (Illustration by Blake Lawrence)

Their season might stink or they could get traded, but you’ll stick with ‘em. The jersey might shrink or the numbers get faded, but you’ll still rock it.

For me, it was Penny Hardaway’s Orlando Magic jersey. Didn’t have the stripes on it, but I didn’t care. I rocked that thing on the daily. To this day, I’ll defend Penny’s legacy as one of the best ballers in the ’90s, with undoubtedly the freshest sneakers of the century.

What was the name on the back of your first jersey?

Imagine you hear their name in some casual barside banter. Would you listen in? If someone wanted to argue that the favorite athlete of your childhood wasn’t the best, would you debate them?

I’d bet yes.

The connection between us and our favorite athletes is worth fighting for. The relationship is real. It is rooted in moments and memories we won’t soon forget. Remember that.

DISCLAIMER: Influencers are incredible. They work their tails off to understand their audience, create an abundance of content, tweak their messaging, maximize their talents and put more energy into marketing themselves than most ad execs put into their biggest clients. They are damn good at what they do.

So… when I say something here quick comparing creators and athletes, it might look like I’m disrespecting the effort it takes to become a full-time social influencer. I am not.

I am here to talk about the difference between athletes and influencers.

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Influencers have our attention, but do they have our allegiance? (Illustration by Blake Lawrence)

To fully understand, I’m going to ask you to recall your last Twitter/Facebook/Instagram session. Your right thumb maneuvering that ol’ scroll, tap-tap, scroll, tap-tap melody. When you should have been sleeping. Or working. Or maybe scouring social is working for you.

Either way.

Do you remember the faces in your feed? The folks with the high res photos or videos? Were they athletes?

I’d bet no.

In today’s influencer-hyped world, I believe athletes are getting lost.

YouTubers, Twitchers, Bloggers, ‘Grammers are shaping our opinions and decisions. With each post, they’re bringing us closer to a community, a consumer product, a new connection we wouldn’t have had without the world-wide-web.

SEE MORE: Why the LPGA is Investing in a Social Media Tool to Help Golfers Build Their Digital Brands

Marketers are fascinated with the power of people sharing stories and snaps about products and places around the world. I don’t blame ‘em. You can’t avoid a good influencer. They’ll beat the algorithm. They will be a feature in your feed.

Influencers have our attention, but do they have our allegiance?

Would you fight to defend your favorite Instagram meme account?

Would you slam your laptop shut if you saw another Ninja vs PewDiePie debate for YouTube GOAT status?

Probably not.

Our fascination with influencers is rooted in content, not championships.

These folks fight for dollars, not dynasties.

They are focused on their likes, not legacies.

Influencers can have our likes, but athletes will have our loyalty.

Athletes are our protectors.

athletes

Athletes are worth fighting for, because they fight for us. (Illustration by Blake Lawrence)

Think of your favorite sports team. Envision the players in the middle of a game, sweat dripping from their brow. They are warriors, fighting for the pride of the people who support them. Nomadic by nature, they may spend days on the road, representing our town or city. But they always come home. To defend our territory. To hang some W’s on any visitor seeking victory on our court.

Whether from the box seats or a bootleg stream, we’ll find a way to watch our home team battle it out against rivals near or far.

Athletes satisfy the desire that I believe lies in all of us — to compete. To claim your territory. To defend it. And ultimately, to win.

It’s human nature that is only amplified by sports. We all want to stand our ground. To cheer for something we love. To watch a person or team rise to the occasion.

SEE MORE: How Panini Delivers Real-Time Content to Draftees on Draft Day

Athletes are the representatives of our human nature.

At some point in our lives, we lay claim to a team or two. Athletes protect that pride. They are sworn defenders of what we hold deepest — our passion for our territories and teams.

Athletes are worth fighting for, because they fight for us.

Our allegiance to athletes is unmatched… and I’m going to prove it in my next post.

This is the first part of a three-part series presented by opendorse that examines the future of athlete-driven media. Part two can be found here and part three can be found here

Digital Media

Meet the #Rising25: Adam Johnson of ISM Raceway

Meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager for ISM Raceway. A 2016 Grand Canyon grad, a talent and passion for storytelling landed him in this year’s class.

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The #Rising25 class of 2019, presented by AB InBev, represents some of the brightest young professionals in the sports industry. Over the next several weeks, we’re proud to introduce you to this year’s winners and highlight some of their achievements to date.

Today, meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager of ISM Raceway.

A 2016 graduate of Grand Canyon University, Johnson began working at ISM Raceway (then known as Phoenix International Raceway) as a volunteer tour leader.  It was in his college days that Johnson saw the possibility of building a career in sports. As a college student, he also gained experience with GCU athletics, the Arizona Rattlers, and the Jerry Colangelo Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic.

“Growing up, my discretionary income would go towards sporting events. Now, I make my income from working behind the scenes at sporting events that I’d love to be attending as a hobby,” Johnson says. “As a kid, I consumed a lot of information about my favorite teams and leagues through the television broadcasts and through social media in high school. I loved the idea of being the person who gives today’s kids that information about their team. Being able to share my passion with the next generation made a lot of sense to me.”

Johnson credits much of his professional development to the education he received as a student and employee at GCU. During his time there, the athletic department transitioned to Division I, which provided an ideal learning environment. Johnson then joined ISM Raceway full-time shortly after graduating from GCU.

In 2017 and 2018, the raceway underwent a $178 million dollar renovation. Some racing fans weren’t thrilled with the idea of a track that had basically remained untouched since 1964 now going through a major change. As part of the digital content team, it was the task of Johnson and his cohorts to win fans over with access to the stadium’s new additions.

“I can confidently say that well over 90% of our fans who had doubts are satisfied with the product now thanks in large part to our storytelling,” he says. “Winning over old fans who were skeptical as well as gaining some new fans for the raceway was my career highlight so far.”

Johnson has already held a number of roles in his short career but says that, irrespective of position, authenticity and having a strong character are essential for success. 

“If people are going to talk about you, make sure that it’s something that you would be proud to hear,” he says. “Be yourself but be cognizant that people are always watching, especially when you work in something like social media.”

Johnson advises those looking to shift their sports careers into the fast lane to take networking seriously and not be intimidated to reach out to others.

“You’d be amazed what can happen if you just reach out and ask someone to coffee,” he says. “That goes a long way because everyone has been in that spot before where they don’t know what their next move is. Take that step out of your comfort zone and ask people if you can pick their brain.”

Meet the full class of 2019 here.

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Inside Locked On Podcast Network’s Quest to Provide Fans with Daily Updates

David Locke started a short-form daily podcast to bolster his job security and now he’s built Locked On Podcast Network across the NBA, NFL and, now, MLB.

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Photo Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2011, and all David Locke wanted was job security.

Locke had just become the Utah Jazz’s radio play-by-play man, replacing longtime announcer Rod Hundley. It was a dream gig but one without much stable footing, so Locke decided he needed a side hustle. It ultimately came by way of launching a short-form daily podcast to further connect with fans and cement his place in the position in the organization.

Eight years later, the plan worked out better than he could have imagined. Locke is still with the Jazz and, in 2016, Locked On formally became an entire podcast network built around daily 15-minute podcasts in the NBA and NFL. This week, it launched an MLB component to deliver further content to an audience that averages more than 5 million listeners a month. Locke believes baseball content is a natural extension of the network’s vision.   

READ MORE: Inside CBS Sports’ Innovative Podcast Strategy

“The natural rhythms of baseball match the network in ability to get a team update in 15 minutes,” Locke said. “I’m a big San Francisco Giants fan, but I haven’t watched a game in forever. I don’t have three hours often, but now I listen to Locked On Giants and I know a lot more about the team all of a sudden from 15 minutes a day.

“In that sense, it has a chance to be really successful.”

Locked On Podcast’s MLB network launched with 20 markets, but Locke expects it to soon scale up to all 30 teams. The goal is to someday rival the network’s success with the NBA, whose aggregate weekly listenership was only once surpassed by its NFL content. “There’s a soap opera element to the NBA,” he said. “It’s as popular or more popular in the offseason.”  

Several polls and studies on podcasts have shown the best format podcasts are shorter, like the 15-minute format Locked On Podcast Network has chosen. The research firm IDG Connect found the ideal time for a podcast is 16 minutes in a study finding users want short, digestible content no matter the format.

Likewise, more Americans are listening to podcasts, as a 2018 Edison Research study found an estimated 48 million Americans listen to podcasts weekly. The same study found podcast awareness among Americans had grown from 46 percent of the total population in 2012 to 64 percent in 2018.

As the network grows to encompass more teams and league, Locke says the next step to improve the network’s content will be to continue to search for high-caliber podcast hosts, the best of whom are often writers already on the respective team’s beat. “There’s no real consistency [in hosts],” Locke said. “Two parts have to happen. They have to care passionately about the team and sport and the ability to deliver daily podcasts. It becomes a bit self-selecting in what we’re asking.

“It brings high-level people naturally by what it is.”

Those hosts aren’t being asked to contribute for free, either. Locke was tight-lipped on his revenue model but said the monetization of his network provides the hosts with a modest payment.

“We’ve had really good revenue growth the past two-and-a-half years, and some of our guys have really successful shows,” he said. “We’ve found a way to bring revenue to all our hosts. We’re really proud of that piece. We’re finding mechanisms to allow podcasts that have not been able to monetize, monetize.”

READ MORE: The Ringer’s ‘Winging It’ Podcast Offers Sneak Peek Into Life in the NBA

Locke’s biggest-picture goal is that Locked On PodcastNetwork can open doors for young talent hoping to make a name for themselves in the media world. He worries radio is providing fewer and fewer avenues, something that he hopes Locked On can both compensate for and, ultimately, benefit from.

“There is a real chance to developing the next age of talent, and not just for other people,” he said. “They can develop and then stay with us and hopefully there’s no reason to leave. I hope that’s something we can be for people.”

The next frontier of growth is already on tap. This fall, Locked On Podcast Network will roll out NCAA teams, an arena the network has dabbled in but never fully committed to. With a format that is scalable to any league, Locke hopes to continue filling fans in with his quick-hit podcast format.

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How Access Has Changed The Conversation Around Digital Storytelling

Athletes share more of their lives than ever before, leaving content creators to grapple with how to deepen the message in the stories they tell.

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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes are sharing more of themselves than ever before, putting the onus on sports content producers to develop thoughtful stories to better connect with audiences. A South by Southwest panel on storytelling in sports discussed how to cut through the noise as a documentary filmmaker and sports storyteller.

“Athletes now have their own crews, cameras constantly around documenting their own lives,” said Gotham Chopra, co-founder and chief creative officer of Religion of Sports, who is currently finishing up a documentary on Stephen Curry entitled “Stephen vs. the Game. “For us, we try to cut through the clutter. It’s not about the access, not just a commodity, but what am I trying to say? Why are we doing this? Unless there’s clarity around that, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

When linear television networks ruled the roost, almost any sort of athlete-related access motivated viewers to tune in to see a slice of an unknowable world. Social media opened the floodgates, however. Now that visibility has exploded, and fans can connect directly with athletes, there’s a need to tell bigger, bolder stories.

READ MORE: ‘We Are LAFC’ Shows Off Exclusive Content Opportunity for MLS, ESPN

“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of access,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content. “That’s just not enough anymore. There has to be stakes. The bar has to get higher and higher. We need to stay in our lane and not get stars in our eyes. A big name isn’t enough anymore.”

For ESPN, one of the biggest answers has come by way of longform documentaries, most notably its 30 for 30 series. Today, it ranks as one of the network’s most critically acclaimed imprints. But Geist remembers a time, not too long ago, when stakeholders were wary of viewers making time to watch hour-plus-long programming that sometimes strays off the beaten path.

“It was a risk to commission 30, hour-long docs,” she said. “Now we know they can sit for a long time. Not just for sports stories, but director-driven. Not just moments in time, not just a Super Bowl or big game, but much more layered cultural stories.”

The culmination of those efforts came in 2016 with ESPN’s Academy Award-winning, five-part miniseries on O.J. Simpson, “O.J.: Made In America.”

“The conversation around that was a ‘step back moment,’” Geist said. “People were not just talking about sports, the buzz around the level of discussion.”

That buoyed a new wave of production. Not only does ESPN have 15 to 20 new 30 for 30 projects in the works, according to Geist, but many of them are “big tentpole films,” like an upcoming 10-hour Michael Jordan project.

In addition, Geist and ESPN also have another platform to work through and deploy new content on thanks to the introduction of ESPN+. Though still less than a year old, ESPN+ is already paying dividends by providing new avenues to tell stories. Geist used the example of the docuseries, a medium she was once loath to push due to the headache of scheduling against billion-dollar live sports rights on ESPN. Now, though, they can be uploaded and binged at a viewer’s leisure.

The number of media platforms like ESPN+ and the plethora of other streaming services have posed the question to independent filmmakers like Chopra of how to make compelling content and draw in viewers. He said he’d prefer a small audience deeply engaged in the message of the project rather than a larger, passive one.

“The new platforms have really raised the game of accountability,” he said. “How do I invest? Whether [in subscriptions] or time, you have to earn that. It’s pushed us as creators.”

Ultimately, however, access does matter in the sense of finding subjects willing to offer up more substantial parts of themselves. Dexton Deboree, co-founder of Los York Entertainment, credits the NBA, in particular, for being a forerunner among organizations within sports that push a coherent message and let players tell meaningful stories. That encourages storytellers like Deboree to embrace athletes’ narratives as a microcosm of humanity to spur serious discussions and connect with like-minded people. Last year, Deboree released “Unbanned: The Story of AJ1,” which tracked the cultural influence of Air Jordan shoes.

READ MORE: Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

“If I’m not into basketball, but I realize there’s a connection, suddenly, there might be something to that community,” Deboree said of how a personal story can create new fans. “I don’t know that we’re changing minds. We just strive to stir the pot and get people to talk about stuff [that] maybe they weren’t.”

From Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to today’s athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, athletes have always had the power to spark social dialogue. Chopra recently finished “Shut Up and Dribble” with James, the title taken from a Tweet James received from Fox News personality Laura Ingraham.

“What an amazing time to be alive in this political climate,” Chopra said. “It was conceived from the most popular player in the world literally getting into a social media war with the president of the United States. We went back to the 1950s, and this isn’t new.”

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