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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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Athletes

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.

athletes

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.

athletes

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.

athletes

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 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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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