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Why Georgia Brought New Concourse Experience to Sanford Stadium

Josh Brooks, Deputy Athletic Director for Operations at the University of Georgia, breaks down why the university leveraged storytelling at Sanford Stadium.

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Rutgers Draws From Fyre Festival to Celebrate Football Milestone

Rutgers drew inspiration from an unusual source to market the upcoming 150-year-anniversary of the first-ever college football game.

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At first blush, it’s the oddest of pairings – a 150-year-old brand and an event that failed spectacularly enough to become a pop culture sensation. Yet as Robert Roselli, Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing at Rutgers, kicked around ideas to celebrate an important football milestone on campus, he couldn’t get the Fyre Festival out of his head.

On November 6th, 1869, Rutgers hosted the first-ever intercollegiate football game, where it defeated the College of New Jersey – today known as Princeton – six points to four. It makes Rutgers the “birthplace of college football,” a designation it wields proudly. With the 150th anniversary of the game drawing near, though, Roselli came to realize that the university had a problem on its hands: A sizeable portion of the student body has no idea exactly how deep the school’s football roots run.

So Roselli decided to launch a brand awareness campaign to remedy that. To do so, he ripped a page out of the Fyre Festival’s playbook. In execution, the so-called “luxury music festival” was an unmitigated disaster. The marketing strategy behind it, however, was cutting edge. The crown jewel was an Instagram influencer campaign in which 400 models posted an image of a bright orange tile with the hashtag #fyrefestival. The idea was to promote the event in a heavily saturated way that nevertheless avoided coming off as canned. Simple visuals trumped complicated text, and hashtags were kept to a minimum.

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“I think I always had it in the back of my head ‘Wow, that was a pretty bold strategy, it generated a lot of buzz. How can we potentially mimic something?” Roselli says.

In early March, he tasked Sophia Tian, Rutgers’ executive marketing intern with finding out. The goal was to increase awareness of the phrase “birthplace of college football” ahead of Rutgers’ spring football game on April 13th. From there, she says, “this became my baby for the next month-and-a-half.”

“Obviously we don’t have Instagram models [or a] tropical lifestyle here at New Brunswick,” she says of her challenge. “How can we make students fear missing out and how can we catch their attention at first?”

The showcase item was a grey giveaway t-shirt to be given away at spring game, which, naturally, read “The Birthplace of College Football” in alternating red and white text. Later, a red tile was added to mirror Fyre Festival’s orange look. She then reached out to 20 friends to serve as her own Instagram influencers and eventually expanded the group to better reflect the student body’s diversity. Student-athletes were approached, too, in the name of adding further star power.

Tian rolled out the campaign in three waves on the 11th, two days before the game. The first came at 7:00 p.m., with the influencers posting pictures of themselves in the shirt – cut or styled any way they chose so long as the words were visible. The second, also at 7:00, was a wave of Instagram stories with the red tile and – “in obnoxiously small font,” Tian notes – the words, “The Birthplace of College Football.”

But the coup de grace was the third wave, in which Tian personally distributed the shirts to bartenders and doormen at some of Rutgers’ most popular student bars in time for the 10:00 p.m. Thursday night rush.

“Right after you see it all over your social media, you get ready to go out and go out and then you see the shirt again,” Tian says. “It’s basically haunting you.”

All told, Roselli and Tian consider the initiative a resounding success. According to Roselli, while student attendance at the spring game mostly mirrored that of the year before, growing that number was always considered an “’icing on the cake’-kind of thing.” Instead, they focused on buzz and measurable trends. To that end, Roselli proudly points to the Google search metrics during the hours of the campaign, which saw an explosion in the number of “The Birthplace of College Football” queries.

The larger future of the project has yet to be determined. For Roselli, it’s not only a successful test of his initial hypothesis, but something that opened his eyes to the possibilities that come from a whole new style of marketing.

READ MORE: 3X3U National Championship Puts a College Spin on Three-on-Three

“I’m confident that had we done this same exact campaign that only focused on our coaches and our different team accounts — what I would call official spokespeople of Rutgers Athletics — it simply would not have created the same buzz, the same coolness factor,” he says.

In the more immediate term, though, it’s a launchpad for their ongoing campaign. The official 150-year anniversary of the first college football game is still more than six months away, and neither Roselli nor Tian wants to let the momentum gained from the influencer marketing campaign slip through their fingers.

“I think raising the awareness now sets their student body up for what’s to come next year,” Tian says. “We are celebrating the 150th anniversary and we also want to capitalize on that message this whole year, this upcoming season. We want to make sure everyone knows that this is where it all started.”

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3X3U National Championship Puts a College Spin on Three-on-Three

The Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship takes place on Final Four weekend and joins events like the Olympics and BIG3 in growing three-on-three hoops.

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Photo Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Paris Collins was reeling after a disappointing early exit from the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament last March. It was an unceremonious end to the career of the senior guard from Jackson State, and he wanted nothing to do with anyone. But as he wallowed in his apartment, his phone rang. A strange number flashed on the screen. He didn’t answer, but a voicemail dinged.

It was Intersport Vice President Mark Starsiak, who called to invite Collins to be part of the inaugural Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship, a three-on-three basketball tournament for college seniors. Collins accepted and, following several standout performances on the court in his hometown of San Antonio, he was invited to five NBA workouts. He ultimately bounced around the NBA G-League before ending up in Mexico.

“It changed my life,” Collins said. “A lot of people saw me, saw the SWAC has good players.  That tournament is the only time in my life I wasn’t judged by the school on my chest.”

READ MORE: How Dos Equis’ Basketball Tournament Is Following in Hulk Hogan’s Footsteps

Now the tournament is back, with the second-annual 3X3U National Championship beginning Friday at the Mall of America in Minneapolis featuring a grand prize of $150,000. With one year in the books, Intersport believes they are much better prepared to organize the best event possible, something that should have a direct impact on the players’ futures.  Of the 128 players in last year’s 3X3U National Championship field, nearly 90 signed professional contracts this past year. This year, the rosters might be even more loaded with potential pros.

“One of the things we learned last year was [to] get ahead of it,” Intersport Executive Vice President Drew Russell said. “Especially for the small conferences trying to get as much exposure as possible. Last year we couldn’t get in touch [with players] or they made spring break plans. These are guys that have been in programs for four years, and if they have a taste of freedom, they’re gone.

“Last year, we had to go deeper into rosters. This year, we got pick of the litter.”

Case in point, prior to the Sweet 16 games in the NCAA Tournament, Starsiak had already filled all but 11 of 128 roster spots in this year’s event, with each Division I conference represented by a team of four seniors. At the same point last year, he didn’t even have 40 in place. As they picked through teams no longer in the postseason, Starsiak said plenty of all-conference players have signed on hoping for one more pre-draft showcase. Likewise, conferences were eager to help connect the best players to the event.

“The more chances they have to get their players and conferences exposure is a good thing,” Starsiak said. “The conferences have really embraced it.”

With the conferences on board and the players being willing to vouch for the tournament, Russell expects the event to continue growing beyond this year. Along with pathways to the NBA and other leagues, Russell believes three-on-three is a growing career path for basketball players, one accelerated by the sport’s inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as well as Ice Cube’s BIG3.

“We feel this is the top-level, premier event in the world but definitely in North America,” Russell said. “When we created this, we didn’t want to use gym rats. We wanted elite level basketball players that would go on to continue playing basketball. We wanted to give them one last time to put on the jersey, compete at a high level and have fun.”

The professional ranks have taken notice, too. According to Starsiak, five NBA teams had a scouting presence at last year’s tournament even without the league reaching out to NBA staffs. This year, to better drum up interest, Intersport sent a one-sheeter to the NBA’s director of scouting, who then passed it on to each team.

“It should bring in way more than five,” Starsiak said. “It’s the biggest aggregation of draft-eligible talent. Guys who are scouting [the Final Four] will also be at our event, full of late-first- to second-round talent that could eventually change a franchise.”

READ MORE: NBA Associates Program Offers Former Players a Path Back to Basketball

For the seniors at the tournament in Minneapolis, it’s one last opportunity to wear a college jersey as well as one extra job audition. But after going through the process himself, Collins’ advice to this year’s crop would be to make sure to have a good time, too. 

“I was happy as heck to be there,” Collins said. “It’s a national tournament, still business talking to reporters, teams and people about what you do. But have fun, be grateful.”

Collins hasn’t stuck with an NBA team, but he’s had more opportunities than he ever thought would. He’s off to China in May for his next professional venture. By this time next year, he could run into another alumnus or two from the Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship along the way.

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Why America East Conference Continues to Put Focus on Mental Health

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The America East Conference is strengthening its efforts to be a leader in mental health among its athletes.

The conference last month announced its Board of Presidents adopted the NCAA autonomy proposal to improve student-athlete access to mental health resources. The proposal was originally approved by the Power Five conferences in January, and America East is the first outside the group to adopt the proposal, but Commissioner Amy Huchthausen said the conference’s efforts stretch back several years. Huchthausen also said it wasn’t a major lift to adopt the proposal because of efforts in the past.

Several years ago, the conference’s student-athlete advisory committee surfaced mental health as an area where it wanted greater attention on the campus and league level. The America East’s 4th Annual Health & Safety Summit will be held in May at UMass Lowell, with part of the summit focused on mental health.

“They had seen what we had done in diversity and inclusion from broader conference initiatives,” Huchthausen said. “We were very open to that, but recognized as league leaders and staff, we’re not educated on what we need to talk about.”

The conference then formed a mental health working group comprised of stakeholders ranging from athletic directors to psychologists and student-athletes to identify the major issues. From there, the focus has become to continue to destigmatize mental health subjects and to improve education and access to mental health resources.

READ MORE: NBA Working to Improve Player, Community Mental Health

“Even though there’s more visibility, people still don’t know what it means,” Huchthausen said. “They don’t have a good understanding of what to do next.”

A baseline report of campuses was performed by athletic directors and presidents, and now a standard of best practices will be implemented across America East campuses.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the interest in our athletic directors to spend time on this issue,” she said. “Their frustration and willingness to say it’s important, but don’t know how to address it — that was really encouraging. That’s helped us advance the conversation.”

The impact of college on students’ mental health is already a lot but add in the added pressures of being an elite athlete and those risks are compounded, said Tim Neal, head athletic trainer at Syracuse University.

Neal said one in four adolescent adults meet criteria of a mental health disorder, and athletes are not immune, no matter the pedestal they’re often put on. The stressors of student-athletes can exacerbate existing conditions or bring on new ones, he said.

“There are unique stressors to an athlete, under constant scrutiny and pressure in the classroom just to remain eligible,” Neal said. “One quarter of a newspaper is dedicated to sports; they’re often well-known on campuses; the psychology of injuries. There are a lot of dynamics most people don’t have to think about.”

Neal said an important factor in the improvement of how colleges, administrators and athletes think about mental health stems from the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline, who has said mental health is the number-one issue in college athletics.

“He’s done more for the student-athletes than anyone else,” Neal said. “He’s made this a priority and is full-speed ahead in developing best practices.”

READ MORE: ‘Diet or Die’: Jesse Marks’ Story Shows Importance of Life Balance in Sports

At the America East level, Huchthausen said the initial reviews of the schools showed most weren’t far off from the pending guidelines, but it did help provide a solid base for standard operating procedures.

She said it’s now more about having a system in place and treated as a true program, rather than a discreet to-do list. Having the conversations also help connect all the resources on campus, that might otherwise be hidden from each other.

“This is an issue that really does touch almost every stakeholder,” Huchthausen said. “The message we want to send is you have to start somewhere. Even if you want a program that would require hiring extra people and adding resources, those might have a high price, even the ideal state, it shouldn’t prevent starting a conversation.

“You have to take the first few steps and that’s what we’re trying to do and hope other leagues follow.”

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