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STN Digital Turns Up the Heat on Social Media

The San Diego-based agency has been able to help companies like the NBA and Twitter capitalize on major social moments across different platforms.

Greg Esposito

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You may not know STN Digital by name, but you’ve probably seen their work and liked what you saw.

That’s because the group has partnered with over 25 sports and entertainment groups to create social media content that isn’t your typical fare — and, even better, do it as fast and efficiently as possible.

“My line has always been ‘anything that can go on social media, we can do,’” said Kris Koivisto, STN Digital senior director of accounts. “Our biggest goal is to take as much off our clients’ plates as possible. All they have to do is call us, give us a couple minutes worth of information, and the next time we talk we’re presenting full page of ideas, mock-ups, pricing options, incremental options, etc. We all love sports and entertainment, and we’re all super competitive. It’s fun to have these projects where we’re embedded shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the biggest brands in the industry and we’re fighting to be the best.”

Two of the biggest brands that Koivisto and crew have partnered with recently are the NBA and Twitter. The company was tasked with helping create amazing social vignettes for both the NBA Awards Show in Los Angeles and the NBA Draft in Brooklyn. Regardless of which coast they were on, they helped develop one-of-a-kind, behind-the-scenes content — the kind of original content that fans crave these days.

“We’ve been fortunate to have worked with Twitter and the NBA on a handful of projects in the past, so there was some existing synergy,” Koivisto said. “I believe this was our seventh project with Twitter since I’ve been here, and the third collaboration with the NBA and Twitter.”

That familiarity meant that the league and the social media giant knew that STN could execute on a tight deadline. How tight? The group had a few months to go from concept to completion for the awards show and just a few weeks to do the same for the draft. Despite the short time frame, the team was able to deliver.

“With these two events, there were two parts of the visual: the set design and the final output of the creative. In our initial conversations, we lay out multiple options of vastly different looks — all with the same overarching vibe,” Koivisto said. “More often than not, the vibe corresponds with the city or the event (New York was gritty/raw introduction to #NBATwitter, while L.A. was outdoor/awards glam with a nod to Venice street ball).

Typically we land on a combination of two or more concepts for the initial look. From there, almost every decision is budget-driven. From the materials of the set build, renting equipment (if needed), sourcing vendors, etc.”

Once the logistics are in place it’s time to move on to the actual production of the content. What will only be just a little over six seconds of video will actually take upwards of two minutes to shoot with the athlete at the station and another 20 minutes to edit with quick cuts synced to music, render and send to the NBA/Twitter to post.

“Anything that you put on social needs to be different from what has been done in the past and what other people are currently doing,” Koivisto said of their approach to social content. “Otherwise you’re just gonna blend in with the crowd. The great Wayne Gretzky was quoted saying he always tries to skate where the puck is going, not where it currently is. Different is better than better, so we love working with partners that are tired of the status quo and looking to make some noise.”

The only way to make something truly different and make enough noise to rise above the rest is to get the buy-in of the players and legends taking part. That’s where Koivisto’s years in the NBA as one of the pioneers of social media with the Portland Trail Blazers comes in handy. In his time with the team, he learned the art of making people comfortable in what is many times an unnatural situation. One where a phone, multiple cameras or a microphone are pointed in an individual’s face while they are asked to pose or interact.

“The way the cadence of the draft was structured, the players and their families didn’t have a chance to see each other before they got to our stop,” Koivisto reminisced. “It was cool to see all of the authentic reactions. If I ever needed to liven up the group I’d throw out, ‘Hey, you made it! You’re all in the NBA family now!’ Trae Young and Mikal Bridges’ families couldn’t help but show some pretty raw emotions.

I was very surprised by how engaged DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III were. I figured the first two picks would probably be the hardest to work with, but it was quite the opposite. Jaren Jackson Jr. was admittedly all over the place, saying ‘this is surreal man, I’m sorry if I’m not paying attention to anything you say.’ It was cool to see his dad’s I’m-so-proud-of-you-son smile on his face.”

While the draft was all about interacting with and herding college kids who just had their dreams come true, the NBA Awards was all about getting cooperation from some of the biggest names in the game.

“In LA, some of the best interactions came from CP3, whom I’d never interacted with before,” Koivisto said. “He was very attentive, didn’t need many cues and was respectful. As a Blazer fan, I hate him a little bit less now. When Donovan Mitchell walked up I kicked off the convo with a hypeman-esque, ‘Is that future rookie of the year Donovan Mitchell?’ … 10 minutes later when Ben Simmons came through, I hit him with the exact same line.

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Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith stood there and heckled everyone as they cycled through for about 20 minutes. When it came time to do the activations themselves, Reggie handed me his phone and asked me to take a ton of pictures.”

Big events for teams and leagues are tough to cover; they are pure chaos as athletes are hustled from one station to the next like contestants on Nickelodeon’s “Super Sloppy Double Dare” trying to finish the obstacle course.

It’s difficult to get any content, let alone the truly compelling kind. As the NBA Draft and Awards Show proved, STN Digital has found a way to do just that.

Proud husband & father to a young daughter. Student of social media & #SMSports. Social and Digital Media Columnist For Front Office Sports and host of the podcast The Solar Panel. Former Senior Digital Manager and voice of the Phoenix Suns social media channels.

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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Digital Media

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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