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Kings of The Court: How Duke Basketball Has Continued To Excel On Social Media

Through a renewed investment in digital, the department has become a content powerhouse.

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Image via @DukeMBB Instagram

There are few brands, if any, in all of college athletics more recognizable than the Duke Basketball program. That’s certainly in part due to the five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, and 14 ACC Championships since 1986 under head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Over the better part of the last decade, however, the basketball program’s digital team has added significant equity to the Duke brand with their efforts on social media.

In the past year alone, the @DukeMBB Twitter handle has seen its impressions almost double from 17.6 million to over 34.1 million. Just prior to this, Duke’s athletic communications department made the decision to simplify their social media approach by merging their recruiting/fan engagement voice known as Duke Blue Planet (DBP) with the voice of their sports information accounts. As a result, @DukeMBB is the most followed team Twitter account in all of college sports with 2.24 million followers. Deputy director of athletics/operations, Mike Cragg, the former SID and 31-year veteran of the athletics department, explains the process of merging those two different presences into one.

I think the merger into one entity helped immensely. It is a better strategy for having just one with better collective thinking and better content. We had great stuff, but I think working together, we now have got a pretty robust team.”

“We are seeing that benefit in the numbers – but more importantly with a unified message and delivery. We’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve in a lot of different ways such as being the first school to ever have a .com website. Now our social media approach is the latest and gives us an even more direct voice to our fans around the world.”

Cragg goes on to explain the added benefits of merging DBP with a more traditional voice.

“We had a lot of meetings asking ourselves – ‘what is the core question’. And that core question was ‘how do we best represent our basketball program and our athletic department and university – together. So knocking down some of those walls if you will and combining the age of video with the age of the written word, I think were the biggest challenges. Having one voice – across different social media platforms – allowed everybody to contribute to our social media world. It came with some growing pains, as expected, but I think that it was definitely the right step to take and it definitely paid off.”

“I’m really proud of this group and they have done a great job.”

Duke Basketball’s social media operation is headed up by director of basketball operations David Bradley. Bradley graduated from Duke in 2004 and has been on staff with the Blue Devils since his undergraduate years. In all of that time, Bradley has been instrumental in helping the basketball program embrace social media.

Together 🔵😈 #HereComesDuke

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“I think we realized that social media was going to be big in some respects before many other college programs did. We’ve always prioritized it and had great support from our staff. Over the past couple years, we’ve definitely become more organized internally. One of the great challenges with social is navigating resource allocation around a crucial entity that wasn’t even on many athletic department radars eight years ago. We have a great team in place now so we’re able to produce high-quality content on a daily basis and remain a trendsetter in college athletics.”  

Because of his reputation as an old-school kind of coach and his very serious courtside manner, fans may be surprised to hear that head coach Mike Krzyzewski has been so supportive of social media utilization. But as Bradley can attest, having the support of the head coach of your program is crucial when developing a social media strategy.

“Coach K has believed in and trusted our social media team to deliver since day one. We might think that social media is the most important thing in the world, but we can’t build a staff, have a comprehensive content schedule and produce top-notch content without the backing of the coaching staff and athletic department. We’ve definitely been fortunate to have that from Coach, our coaching staff, Mike Cragg, Jon Jackson and Dr. White.”

One of the biggest indicators of Duke’s recent digital success has been their Instagram metrics. In November of 2016, fans viewed videos on the basketball program’s official page 1.73 million times. A year later in November of 2017, that number grew to 8.45 million. Bradley and the social team have given special priority to creating content for Instagram and the audience that dwells on it.

“When we make a video, we consider whether we’re making it for Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and discuss where our priorities lie. All those platforms have different audiences and serve different purposes.”-David Bradley, Director of Basketball Operations. 

“We’ve decided that Instagram is our highest priority right now, so we’ve made sure we have top-quality videos posted there in a length and format that appeals to the IG audience. All of our recruits and players are on Instagram, along with so many of our younger fans. It’s obvious attention spans have waned so we keep our content short and on brand, catering to that demographic. We attract some of the brightest student-athletes in the country to Duke, and definitely enjoy using those guys as sounding boards for what types of content and music they like to see on social media.”

A large factor that has gone into Duke’s Instagram growth has been their commitment to both consistency and simplicity in their content.

“One thing that I’m proud of this year is how our consistent we’ve become in branding our content.  We created a comprehensive style guide and all of our video, photos and graphics have a consistent look where you know it’s from @DukeMBB. The overall quality has ramped up as well, as we benefited from the great video skills and creative talents of Stephen Broome and Nolan Elingburg.  Also, our athletic department made a fantastic hire in landing staff photographer Reagan Lunn. We have the best sports photography in the country on our social channels because of Reagan. Overall, with a great team in place we’ve been able to get way more into the weeds on content strategy.”

For occasional help with graphic design and animation, the social team has turned to agencies like Team Infographics and Uncommon Thinking. This helps reach fans with even more striking and informative content during games that can be created and shared quickly.

Perhaps the biggest reason behind Duke basketball’s social media success has been their ability to showcase the unique personalities of the student-athletes that have played for the team over the years. This practice seems to have begun with former All-American Nolan Smith. Smith played at Duke from 2007 to 2011, then had a four-year career in the NBA before returning to the Blue Devils, where he now has a role within the program assisting with digital content as well as coaching basketball. Bradley credits Smith with being the first player to show the program how important embracing social media would be.

“Nolan showed that you can have a really good personality, have fun and still win big. Particularly in our National Championship season in 2010, he was front and center for us as social media was really taking off. We let him do his thing and show his personality. He might have been the original sports vlogger, where he’d actually go out and film for us. We’d just give him the camera and he’d come back with compelling, authentic footage. It was a little bit raw, but that was the point. People were able to see Duke Basketball in a completely different way. Now, he’s on our staff so he’s still involved more as an advisory role. He’s had such a tremendous impact on our program in so many ways both on and off the court.”

Just as the basketball team will continue to find ways to be in national championship conversation, Duke basketball’s social team will continue to find ways to innovate in the digital space. If other programs and athletic departments hope to follow suit, it all begins with placing greater emphasis on social media strategy as the Blue Devils have been able to do.

“We’ve certainly seen athletics departments devote increasing resources to video, photography and graphic design in recent years. The programs doing the best work on social have prioritized it across every level, from the coaching staff, to the student-athletes, to the sports information department all the way up to the senior staff and athletic director.  We’ve been lucky to that have support here for awhile and it has paid off for us.”

*Duke is a client of Team Infographics and Team Infographics is a Proud Partner of Front Office Sports.

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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