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How Ohio State is Changing the Game When It Comes to Personal Brands

#BrandU is the brainchild of Sam Silverman, Asst. Director, Creative Media & Branding for Ohio State Football.

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Silverman (left) seen here presenting to the Ohio State football team. (Photo via Sam Silverman)

If you would have happened upon Sam Silverman and asked him what he wanted to do after he got done with his undergraduate studies at Ohio State, he would have most likely told you a “sneaker designer”.

For the industrial design major, Silverman admits that while he was good at art he didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with it after high school. A self-proclaimed “sneakerhead”, Silverman gravitated to the major in which he could combine both his proficiency in art with his love for sneakers.

While in school at Ohio State, Silverman fell in love with the storytelling aspect of not only sneakers and their design, but just design in general. It was this love, mixed with the skills he had built up over the course of his four years at OSU that led him to taking a role with the athletic department as a volunteer intern after graduating in 2012.

“I was working for free, doing some graphic design work, because, at the time, they wanted to revamp their marketing initiative through graphic design,” said Silverman. “They were really lacking in the area of how to promote the program through physical mailers or through social media.”

Not a graphic designer by trade, Silverman was able to use the early days with the athletic department to dive deeper into the process and learn more about the history of the industry and what made it tick.

“After that, my brain started clicking better with graphic design,” mentioned Silverman.

While making advances inside the world of graphic design, Silverman was also supporting and working for Launch Labs, the startup himself and a group of buddies founded. It was there while working on the brand of the startup as well as the clients that Silverman found a fascination in how to marry storytelling with imagery.

“I really enjoy figuring out what people’s stories are and how I can best communicate that to a target audience.” As I started working with more and more clients, everything started clicking and churning for me.”

Eventually, Silverman quit working with the startup and transitioned full-time to OSU. During the process, he had grown close to Braxton Miller, creating what would become the genesis for this newly implemented program.

A look at some of the sketches from the logo design for Braxton Miller (Photo via Sam Silverman)

“When I started working for OSU full-time I was close with Braxton Miller. One of my friends wanted a personalized logo. Something that represented him and what he wanted to accomplish. It was the relationship with him that sparked it all.” said Silverman.

“You have to ask yourself how you can make your name more valuable than just what happens on the field.”

This wasn’t the first time that Silverman had helped build a brand identity for a player. In 2014, he had been assigned the task of creating something that would separate OSU from others when it came to recruiting Myles Turner. Turner, who was from Texas, was heavily recruited out of high school. Silverman and the rest of the basketball recruiting staff knew they had to do something different to stand out from Turner’s home school of UT.

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“We were in a battle with Texas and he is from Texas. We were trying to swing as hard as we could to get him to come to Ohio State,” said Silverman. “We brainstormed what could be done to separate us from the rest and present it to him saying, ‘we are already thinking about your personal brand and how we can help  build that while you are at Ohio State and have it become something you can take with you once you leave.’” 

“Guys at Ohio State have a pretty large platform where people are listening to them because of who they are and where they are at.”

While Silverman wasn’t in the actual presentation, the idea had left an impact.

“I wasn’t in the actual presentation, but the coaches told me when they were presenting it to them his mom started crying which was incredible to hear.”

Silverman would continue to grow within the athletic department, taking on more responsibility and eventually transitioning away from his duties for the entire department and focusing fully on football.

Sketches of Myles Turner’s logo. (Photo via Sam Silverman)

Although the idea with Turner was a hit, Silverman had forgotten about it mostly until one of the football coaches approached him and asked him to help with blowing away a recruit they had coming.

“Coach Johnson asked what could we do that was different and I told him about what we did for Myles Turner and that we could replicate it for Taron Vincent,” said Silverman. “ We put together a logo and showed him how we could help build his personal brand during his time at Ohio State and how he could leverage that  to add value to his name and make it more memorable.”

With multiple personal brands built and multiple recruiting pitches delivered, Silverman knew it was time to take what he had been doing to the next level. Given the success he had seen with it so far, he knew it could potentially set OSU apart from other programs.

“After I’d been giving these presentations and seeing the overwhelmingly positive results we were getting from the recruits and their families about them, it really made me think about how this could be something that makes us stand out. All big-time football programs nowadays have great facilities, great fanbases, and great stadiums. This was something really unique and really different from what they (players) were used to seeing.”

“I was really fortunate because of the leadership we have here at Ohio State to give me the ownership to run with this and think about how we could make it bigger and better.”

The skills were there, the support was there, the desire for the program was there, all they needed was to get it cleared by compliance and the conference and they were off to the races.

“I started thinking about it and, working alongside our compliance office, made sure we could do this as an in-house resource,” said Silverman. “We ran the idea by compliance and the Big Ten. We got the okay as long as the endeavor wasn’t for profit and the players weren’t profiting off of it while they were in school.”

“Two weeks ago, I was granted the opportunity to speak to the team. It was exhilarating. That was the biggest audience I had ever spoken in front of.”

Now, in what Silverman called “Phase One”, he and other members of the team are meeting with players to help them work through the self-discovery process. During this process, they help guide the athletes through a series of questions and conversations that allow them to determine who they really are.

As Silverman puts it, “Phase One is really about self-discovery for these players. They figure out who they are because you can’t promote a brand if you don’t know who you are, what you stand for, and why you stand for it.”

Like anything in life, getting this kind of benefit is something earned and not given. In order to “unlock the next phases” of the program, players have to be in good academic standing, good standing with coaches, and good standing when it comes to their practice habits.

“Once all those boxes are checked and the coaches approve, then we move on to the additional phases,” said Silverman.

Although the program has just begun in football, the goal is to make it a department-wide curriculum and one that will set all of OSU’s student-athletes up for success after their athletic careers end. If the student-athletes choose to work with OSU after graduation, they are welcome to, but even if they don’t Silverman and his team knows they will leave the program more prepared than when they started.

“I want these student-athletes to come out of this program and workshop with what I’m calling a ‘personal brand toolkit’ that they can utilize. If they want to continue working with us great, but if not at least they have something that keeps them ready.”

Thanks to buy-in from the administration, ownership from Silverman and the desire to push the envelope when it comes to offerings for their student-athletes, Ohio State just set the standard for what is to come in college athletics.

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at adam@frntofficesport.com.

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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