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How Kentucky Football’s Digital Team Creates Content and Empowers Student-Athletes

The University of Kentucky isn’t just about basketball. Just ask the school’s football digital team.

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*Team Infographics is a proud partner of Front Office Sports

For decades, the University of Kentucky has been synonymous with the sport of basketball due to the school’s eight national championships on the men’s side. For the past few years, however, excitement from the members of Big Blue Nation has been growing when it comes to the football program as well.

This is thanks, in large part, to the coaching tactics of head coach Mark Stoops, the electrifying play of running back Benny Snell Jr., and the digital prowess of UK Director of Athletics Communications and Public Relations Susan Lax.

After 22 years with the university and three in her current role with the football program, Lax claims to have seen it all with how much the Wildcats have fluctuated in terms of their on-field product. Whether it be good or bad, Lax can tell a fan and/or media member everything that there is to know about UK football.

“I’ve seen all the ups and downs of Kentucky football,” Lax said. “I know every player that’s played. I know how hard it’s been on our fans. I know how hard coach Stoops has worked in this last six years to grow to where we are right now. I take so much pride in it. This is what I wake up thinking about and what I go to sleep thinking about.”

Along with a crew of 11 staffers, Lax helps direct the handling of marketing and communications for the football program.

The team is comprised of photographers, graphic designers, and videographers telling the story of the program’s rise to a national top-20 ranking, which included the first defeat of divisional rival Florida since 1986 earlier this season. That helped UK achieve the fourth-most interactions among Division I athletic department accounts in September with 118,000.

Each week, that crew meets to find new ways to highlight how the Wildcats are continuing to improve.

“We have different designers design different looks each week, and so it’s been really fun because everybody in that room is creative and we’re just testing out ideas left and right. And it’s hard to keep up with them all.”

The Wildcats have already accrued enough wins this season to secure bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season. But both the football team and the digital team have no plans to slow down amidst rising expectations. Snell and linebacker Josh Allen have been big focal points for both.

“We know we have something special in this team. What we wanted to do creatively is take the personalities of these guys and pay it forward.” said Lax.

In addition to making Snell the subject of much of its marketing materials, the football communications team has taken steps to help the running back build his personal brand for the future. This is something the university strives to do with all of their student-athletes. With Snell, in particular, the communications team has begun the process of helping him acquire the trademark to the phrase “Snell Yeah,” which he has tattooed across his stomach.

SEE MORE: Michigan Athletics Turns to Facebook to Drive New Donations

The staff also helped Snell set up his personal website: SnellYeah.com. They did something similar for Allen with DraftJosh41len.com. Lax can attest that the power of personal branding has become a bigger emphasis for Kentucky football players over the last few years.

“We’ve always brought in speakers during the summer and fall camp to talk to them about building their brand using Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter,” Lax said. “Everything they do when they post is about their brand. We also brought in a company called Influencer (INFLCR) because we were spending so much time sending out photos and video to players who were asking us for it. Now, we use Influencer (INFLCR) so that we can get that content that we send out to our athletes faster. That it helps them build their brand so that you don’t see as many retweets of music or things like that on players’ pages. Because they have that content straight from us, their profiles are more on brand with Kentucky football, as well as their own personal brands.”

From an aesthetic point of view, the graphic designers have embraced the simplistic elements of UK’s branding, namely the colors.

“We really wanted the blue to pop in the images, so we limited the color palette to mainly neutral grays and blue,” said Kentucky’s Creative Director Brandon Kolditz. “The neutral tone helps take out distractions and puts the focal point on our Kentucky blue. We also focused on using no more than two fonts, primarily going with our brand font, Torque, and then using a script font for words we wanted to emphasize, such as the Get Up slogan.”

That enthusiasm portrayed in the graphics reflects how Big Blue Nation supports its favorite team.

“Like much of Kentucky, we are a blue-collar program that will build our success by hard work, grit and determination,” continued Kolditz. “We wanted a look that displayed that feel. We kept it simple and clean, not wanting a lot of elements or opponent colors to distract the viewer away from the powerful messaging that Get Up conveys.”

In addition to its on-staff designers, Kentucky has also begun using Team Infographics this year to supplement gameday content.

“We wanted to do something a little bit more flashy with movement,” explained Lax. “We wanted the stat information to be there, but we also wanted folks to instantly know it was Kentucky every time they see it.”

SEE MORE: Paws & Claws Club Provides Auburn Pets the Opportunity to Be Fans 

Not only has Team Infographics worked with Lax and her team to develop high-quality motion graphics, but the CMS allows them to produce these graphics easily and on the fly.  

“It’s just so easy to use, which is great for our students who help us during the game. We have the photos that we’ve taken all year already in the system. So all we need to do is make sure that the stat information is correct and, with the click of a button, we have a graphic.”

While the Wildcat football program ranks 30th in FBS with 330,360 combined followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, vanity metrics are not a primary focus for UK. The main focus is simply on quality.

While the team puts in the work to rise through the ranks of the college sports digital world, Lax reflected on putting in the work to get to her current role and the can-do attitude that helped her along the way.

“When I started, I was willing to do anything. I drove the track and field van to meets, I would open doors, I did public address for baseball; I was doing everything. I wasn’t entitled to anything and I just kept working my way up until now.”

Just as that attitude has allowed Lax to achieve her role, it has allowed the digital team to create excellent content for a football program undoubtedly on the rise.

*Team Infographics is a proud partner of Front Office Sports

See more excellent content from UK Football by following the program on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@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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