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Jennifer Azzi Is Growing the Game of Basketball All Over the World

The basketball superstar regularly speaks to audiences all over the world on how to lead and motivate teams.

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Photo via Jennifer Azzi

(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)

Jennifer Azzi is one of the world’s most accomplished names in women’s basketball. An NCAA champion from Stanford, Olympic gold medalist, and 13-year professional player, Azzi went on to coach the University of San Francisco women’s basketball team, earning a West Coast Conference championship and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2016 after six seasons at the helm.

Shortly after that, Azzi accepted a role with the NBA as the global director of the NBA Academy. In this role, Azzi oversees a network of elite basketball training centers around the world that is developing the top international male and female basketball prospects. Having the opportunity to serve as a global ambassador for the sport, as well as develop the future stars of basketball, continues to attract Azzi to the job.

“Being part of the NBA family and helping to grow the game globally is really exciting,” Azzi said. “A lot of American colleges and universities are looking for international talent on the men’s and women’s sides. There’s so much potential in places like India and China. We’re working there to help young men and women develop both their athletic and academic abilities so they can get to the next level and eventually play professionally. It’s exhilarating to be at the forefront of the growth of the game.”

READ MORE: Inside the Huddle: Talking Paid Social With Angela Welchert

Working in conjunction with former University of Missouri standout and USF associate head coach Blair Hardiek, Azzi and the NBA’s efforts to grow the game are already paying dividends, particularly in India.

Sanjana Ramesh, an NBA Academy product, recently signed with Northern Arizona University, becoming the second female student-athlete from India to join a Division I program.

“On the women’s side, it’s been really fun to help young women like Sanjana come to the United States and play in the NCAA. That’s a huge thing for India, it’s great for the NBA, and it’s great for women around the world.”

Thanks to the NBA Academy’s focus on academics as well as basketball, Azzi and company are able to prepare them for the expectations that await them in college. This has been immensely satisfying for Azzi.

“I thought it would take us three or four years before we get a Division-I athlete, but it happened in the first year,” she remarked. “We’re able to bridge the gap between these incredibly talented, motivated young women and opportunities. It’s just very rewarding to educate them on what the possibilities are as long as they also focus on getting the grades. That’s why the education component of the academies are important as well.”

A former student-athlete herself at Stanford, Azzi recognizes what an enriching experience playing in the NCAA can be, and takes pride in helping other young women reach that level.

“Growing up in East Tennessee, getting the opportunity to go to Stanford opened up the world for me,” Azzi said. “It led to me playing professionally in other countries and in the WNBA. I have incredible respect and gratitude for Amy Tucker at Stanford for taking a chance on me. Helping someone to fulfill their own dreams and get those kinds of opportunities has been incredibly rewarding work.”

With basketball now being the second-most popular sport in the world, Azzi attributes the game’s growth to a number of the NBA’s efforts over the last few decades.

“The NBA effort has been great on the global front in terms of both marketing and building people. They’ve done a fantastic job over the last 10 to 20 years building initiatives, like Basketball Without Borders, which led to things like opening basketball schools in India, and the Jr. NBA Global Championship.”

Since 2009, Azzi and Hardiek have also been running their own developmental camps for young athletes. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Azzi Academy teaches not only the fundamentals of the game, but also the life skills that “encourage every player to be their very best.”

Azzi, Hardiek and their staff try to instill the values of teamwork, leadership, and kindness in the campers. Azzi also conducts camps on the NCAA recruiting process for student-athletes looking to learn more.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to in this day and age, but we’ve made sure that that kindness is a big piece of what we do. The good thing about being based in the Bay Area is that we have the Golden State Warriors right here, so kids get to see the wonderful examples of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant — guys playing at the highest levels who are also kind and do the right things.”

Paralympian Trooper Johnson also speaks to camp attendees about the importance of staying away from drugs and living a healthy lifestyle.

After 11 years of doing camps and coaching, Azzi is starting to see children that came through her camps finish college and become adults that use the lessons Azzi’s camps taught them. These are some of the most satisfying moments for her.

“To hear a parent or a former camper say things like ‘I’m really glad that you guys do more than just basketball because you’re teaching valuable lessons of life that they might not get going somewhere else.’ As time goes on, those are the real rewarding stories.”

READ MORE: Inside the Huddle: Monetizable Social Assets With Jonah Ballow

To grow the camp, as well as her personal brand, Azzi works with athlete brand strategy consultancy BrandForward, which Azzi describes as “wonderful to work with.” With booking help from BrandForward, Azzi regularly speaks to audiences all over the world on how to lead and motivate teams. In these talks, Azzi stresses the importance of being supportive and available for every member of a team.

“The greatest lesson in leadership that I can give is to try to make every player feel comfortable and important,” she said. “I think my greatest tough lesson being in a position of power came through coaching and realizing that your power and influence can be used for good or bad purposes. I learned quickly that using my authority in a positive way and building people up was invaluable as a coach.”

Overall, communicating has been a major reason for Azzi’s success as a player, a coach, and now as an advocate for the game she loves all over the planet.

“Communication is everything. Everybody’s different, and what might motivate one kid is not going to motivate another one. You have to figure out what motivates different people. Applying that is why I feel we’ve been successful with Azzi Camp, as well as with the NBA Academy.”

(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)

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Managers on a Mission Gave an Equipment Manager a Lifelong Network

Participants make connections with the people they serve alongside as part of MOAM — and this certainly was the case for TSU’s equipment manager.

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Photo credit: Managers on a Mission

(*MOAM is a Proud Partner of FOS)

In the nearly six years since the organization’s beginning, Managers on a Mission (MOAM) has been giving young people within the sports world opportunities to grow professionally and spiritually through service projects all over the United States as well as the world.

In nearly all cases, participants make lasting connections with the people they serve alongside, as well as learn valuable lessons about what a career in sports entails. This was the case for Andrew Johnson, an alumnus of MOAM and now head equipment manager at Texas State University.

Johnson graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2013, where he became an equipment manager for the football team. While working as an equipment manager for the New York Jets in 2014, Johnson heard of MOAM’s work through the organization’s founder, Drew Boe. At first unsure of whether he would be a good fit for the program as a post-grad, Johnson eventually applied and accompanied MOAM on a mission trip to Malawi in the summer of 2017.

“The experience of the trip was awesome,” Johnson describes. “You go there thinking at first that you’re going to have this huge impact in the life of the kids, but they teach you as well and you end up leaving as this totally new person. My biggest takeaway is just how awesome it is to be able to work with people that are from totally different backgrounds as us. These people obviously don’t have the same resources as most Americans. So it’s an uphill battle from day one for them, but they keep the faith and they do what it takes to make it.”

READ MORE: How MOAM Gave a Basketball Coach a Whole New Perspective

In addition to leading daily prayer and devotions of faith, Johnson and company led local children in daily games including basketball, volleyball, soccer, and American football. They accomplished this despite a significant amount of their equipment going missing upon arrival. Ironically, this inadvertently helped teach Johnson the biggest lesson he learned while in Malawi.

“The trip taught me the importance of being able to adapt on the fly and do what you need to do to make it in that situation,” Johnson states. “When we first got to Malawi, half our luggage was lost. So we just had to make do and change our schedule because we didn’t have our equipment. You never know what hand your going to be dealt during a game or in life, but you have to adjust on the fly and take care of it and keep the faith.”

Since returning from the trip, Johnson still regularly finds time to connect with the other participants from his mission trip as well as other contacts he has made through Managers on a Mission.

“Everybody that’s ever been on a trip is in this group chat,” Johnson explains. “In addition to things like prayer requests, we also try to connect people in the group that are looking for jobs with open opportunities that we know of. Every major sport at all different levels is represented. For a young person in the industry, it is a great way to branch out and grow professionally.”

During his travels, Johnson will often chat with these contacts in person and occasionally try to help recruit new participants for the program.

“I still donate and anytime I see them at a convention, I’ll stop by the booth for a little bit. I gained so many lifelong friends and business connections through MOAM. It’s just an amazing group of people.”

In addition to still frequently communicating with his colleagues in MOAM, Johnson hopes to lead a domestic service trip sometime in the near future. For any young professionals considering applying for a Managers on a Mission project, Johnson doesn’t think you will regret it.

“If you’re nervous about leaving the country or being away from home, MOAM will make sure you’re ready to go. They’re not going to send you if you’re not ready to go. If you feel that you’ve been called to do this, take that step and give it a shot.”

(*MOAM is a Proud Partner of FOS)

Deadline to apply for the summer trips is March 1! Applications for the 2019 summer mission trip can be submitted here. Potential applicants should contact MOAM Director of Discipleship Seth Ralston at sralston@managersonamission.org with any further questions.

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Inside the Atlanta Falcons’ Social Media Presence With Kyle Benzion

Throughout all of their content, the Atlanta Falcons utilize three different hashtags that each play their own part in telling the team’s story.

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Photo via @AtlantaFalcons

(*Team Infographics is a Proud Partner of Front Office Sports)

Here are two things that are difficult — but essential — to achieve in sports social media: Establishing a balance in tone, and capturing the voice of the home city. In recent years, one of the best examples of doing both can be found in the Atlanta Falcons’ social presence.

To show how they have achieved this, Falcons’ social media coordinator Kyle Benzion provided some insight. For starters, the Falcons’ Twitter account reaches a nice balance between humor/clever copy and emotional storytelling.

“We really focus on creating a balance between what our audience wants and what our football team represents,” Benzion says. “Everything we do starts from insights. Our goal is to understand what our fans are feeling and then develop content and share news that they are interested in. Whether it means being the source of the news, interacting with other teams or brands, pumping up one of our players, or creating strong emotional videos, there are always insights that are tied to our decision making.”

This past season, the Falcons put forth another example of their strong storytelling abilities with the Falcons’ remix of “Welcome To Atlanta.” The team released the song and video at the start of the 2018 season to get fans excited about the upcoming year.

“The Falcons remix of ‘Welcome To Atlanta’ illustrated the strong connection between the city of Atlanta, the fans and the football team, but it wasn’t just a song about the football team,” Benzion clarifies. “Although it represented the continued growth of the Falcons Brotherhood and what this team can become, it was really a song about the city of Atlanta. The words embrace the past, yet, similar to the team’s mindset, are also focused on owning the future.”

Benzion goes on to credit team leadership for establishing a path for the social team to connect with fans as opposed to being transactional both with the “Welcome To Atlanta” video and with other social campaigns.

“We’re always encouraged to think big, really big,” Benzion adds. “In this case, it took a ton of planning from a variety of members throughout our organization. Everyone had to be on the same page to pull off a season launch like this. The video was the most shared video on Facebook in professional sports the first half of September and it was an incredibly fun and rewarding project to be a small part of.”

For in-game content, the social team keeps fans updated with scoring-drive motion graphics that it creates hand in hand with Team Infographics.

“Team Infographics is a great company to work with,” Benzion testifies. “I originally worked with Team Infographics when I worked for the Nebraska Huskers. I really liked what they were able to bring to game day and their fantastic customer service. We have worked directly with Team Infographics for two years and they have been nothing short of incredibly responsive and easy to work with. We look forward to continuing to work with them.”

Throughout all of their content, the Falcons utilize three different hashtags that each play their own part in telling the team’s story: #InBrotherhood, #RiseUp, and #TogetherWeRise. Benzion explains the thinking behind these.

“#InBrotherhood, #RiseUp, and #TogetherWeRise live simultaneously but each carry their own equity. #RiseUp is a call to action or a rallying cry that represents what Falcons do. #InBrotherhood represents the relentless spirit in which we work for each other, support each other and fight for each other on the field. Each equity allows us to bring the team, the city and the fans closer together in different ways.”

#InBrotherhood was originally created during the team’s 2016 playoff push that ended with a Super Bowl appearance. Our goal was to create something that helped bring the football team together with the city and the fans.

“For the Falcons and Head Coach Dan Quinn, “Brotherhood” is not just a word we toss around, but rather a way of life and something the team strives for every day,” Benzion adds. “Our entire city was able to relate to the traits that the ‘Brotherhood’ representes such as toughness, grit, hard work, and getting back up again and again no matter the circumstance.” 

One unique undertaking for the Falcons’ social team in the last year has been promoting the opening of Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which the Falcons call home. Benzion and company consider themselves fortunate to help tell the venue’s story alongside digital team members dedicated solely to the stadium’s channels.

As Benzion puts it, “Making people fall in love with a place requires a different strategy than falling in love with our team; but it’s not hard to do with the world-class technology, architecture and community connection that our owner, Arthur Blank, has built. During the lead-up to the opening of the stadium, we worked hand in hand with our communications team, dropping monthly time lapses, drone videos, and other stadium ‘firsts’ or reveals that were always incredibly high-performing pieces of content. Any new news on the stadium, fans loved. It was very unique because it allowed us to break out of our usual NFL fan base and reach completely new audiences.”

At the end of the day, Benzion believes that in order to achieve a high ranking digital position in the NFL is to avoid having a one-dimensional skill set.

“My biggest advice to a college student that hopes to be in my position one day would be to be multidimensional. Be great at what you do. Be a master of it and have a variety of skillsets. The more you can do, the harder it is for a potential employer to say ‘no’. If you can do graphics, video, social insights and analytics, photos and write, you are setting yourself up for success.”

(*Team Infographics is a Proud Partner of Front Office Sports)

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Inside The Huddle: Digital Content Distribution With Tina Jain

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Digital Media Huddle presented by opendorse on February 22, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Tina Jain, manager of social and digital marketing with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. She will be one of the leaders of the huddle, “Content in the Right Hands: How Distribution Makes All the Difference.”

Jain began her career on the digital side of sports in 2011 at the NHL’s league office in New York as the league’s first dedicated social media hire. After four and a half years of playing a large role in the league’s overall social strategy, Jain spent just over a year with MLB Advanced Media before joining the Devils in 2017.

“When I was in college, digital — let alone social — was not a major. It wasn’t even a class. Twitter was just starting up and people used Facebook just to talk with their friends. So people who started working at brands around that time got to be early adopters and really shape social marketing for what it has become today. It’s been really cool to be one of those people who has seen it from the ground up.”

Working with a team, as opposed to a league, has been a different experience for Jain because she spends more time collaborating with players and helping them shape their personal brands. Until fairly recently, Devils’ players were not permitted to use social media due to rules imposed by management. When this policy changed, Jain set to work building the team’s following through the players’ own personalities.

“We took the Devils from this old mindset into a new age. We’re getting cell phones in players’ hands, we’re at media day, we’re onboarding them into opendorse, and just showing them that it is OK to show fans their personality. That was one of my biggest priorities when I first joined the team.”

Jain has made a point to let the players know that she and the rest of the marketing team can be a valuable resource for social media education or improving their overall digital presence.

“Being in the league for a number of years has helped me establish relationships, which is a big part of working in this industry. Opendorse has been very helpful with our athlete-driven content as well. We were the first NHL team to use that last year and now several other teams are using opendorse.”

Utilizing players’ social channels continues to be a large part of the Devils’ content distribution strategy. This enables Jain to customize graphics and captions to best relate to the audience of a particular channel. Treating each channel and each piece of content uniquely maximizes views and engagement.

“It’s not always one size fits all. You have to think about the purpose of the content that you’re putting out. Are you selling tickets? Are you promoting a theme night? Are you generally just celebrating a win, teammate, or team moment? You really have to be mindful of who the audience is, what the message is, and where you’re distributing it.”

Up to this point in her career in sports, Jain offers the following advice for aspiring professionals.

“Have a plan. Your career is a marathon. Seek out leaders that can help you achieve your goals and talk to them. With each new year or new role, find a few specific areas you want to hone in on and focus on those. It’s better to give your full focus to a few things than give a little bit of focus to a lot of things.”

Meet Tina and hear more of her thoughts on the current digital landscape at the Front Office Sports Digital Media Huddle presented by opendorse in New York on February 22. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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