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More Super Bowls Means More Innovation for Patriots’ Content Team

Don’t let the old-school image fool you, the Patriots’ in-house media team is among the most forward-thinking in the NFL, especially in digital.

Jeff Eisenband

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It’s Wednesday night of Super Bowl Week and Robert Kraft walks into the basement of Sidebar, a sports bar in Atlanta. Kraft has owned the Patriots for 25 seasons and this is his 10th trip to the Super Bowl. Yet, this is new for Kraft.

On this night, Kraft is the premier guest on “Patriots Right Now,” a live show produced by the Patriots’ content team, airing from 7-7:30 p.m. ET Tuesday-Friday of Super Bowl Week. Kraft first discusses his team’s preparation for the week, but then, after a commercial break featuring Patriots’ official sponsors, Kraft talks about his recent criminal justice reform work with Meek Mill, Jay Z and 76ers owner Michael Rubin. He even tells a story about hanging out late night with Meek Mill’s entourage.

This content could not be found in 1997. Social media was nonexistent and the best way for teams to tell their own stories was in print, a hard medium to distribute in a single Super Bowl week. In 2019, the Patriots can communicate directly with their fans.

While the Patriots may have a reputation as the old guard of the NFL, the franchise’s content team is among the most innovative in the NFL.

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After Kraft gets off air Wednesday, he embraces Fred Kirsch. Technically speaking, Kirsch is Publisher & Vice President of Content at Kraft Sports Productions. But inside the Patriots’ front office, Kirsch is as valuable as family. In 1994, Kirsch was working as editor of New England Sport — Journal of the Sports Museum of New England, a quarterly publication covering sports in the region. During the 1994 season — the first in the Kraft Family reign — Kirsch sent then-Vice President Jonathan Kraft a letter mapping out an idea for Patriots in-house content. When the Patriots lost in January 1995 in the Wild Card Round to the Browns — coached by Bill Belichick — Jonathan called Kirsch to offer him a job.

On April 3, 1995, Kirsch published the first issue of Patriots Football Weekly. He’s been in charge of the team’s content ever since, and with the Krafts’ blessing, he keeps building.

“A lot of people don’t realize, but before [Robert Kraft] was the owner of the Patriots, he owned Channel 7 in Boston,” Kirsch says. “He gets content, especially video. He’s really into that. Jonathan’s the same way. They totally get video. We were the first team to have a website, we were the first team to do live video on the web, so since I’ve been here since ‘95, they’ve let us do whatever we needed to do.”

Kirsch’s team took a leap at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. Establishing the “Not Done Network,” the Patriots brought in media veterans Jay Crawford and Molly McGrath to host a temporary 24/7 TV channel devoted to Patriots coverage leading up to Super Bowl LII. Broadcasting out of Mall of America, the channel intended to give Patriots fans a definite, constant source of content for the week.

With Atlanta’s Super Bowl layout being more spread out, Kirsch decided to focus his efforts on a nightly live show hosted by Patriots in-house talent Megan O’Brien and Andy Hart. Unlike the “Not Done Network,” “Patriots Right Now” launched at the beginning of the postseason and is already in Patriots fans’ routine.

“There’s an excitement factor,” Kirsch says. “Very few things nowadays, when it comes to content, are live. Everything’s on demand. Content consumption has changed. It’s shifted over the years. We know that, but there’s something about live. Let’s just make it an event. That’s not to say we’re not gonna wrap this up and not put what we did on demand. Of course we will. We’ll put it on our social channels, Patriots.com and all that, but just something to that live event, that’s cool.”

For obvious reasons, the Patriots organization has a wealth of experience in Super Bowl content. Kirsch and his team have dealt with trial and error. The biggest thing he’s learned: Fans want to feel the excitement through their screen.

“It really doesn’t matter how many times we do this,” Kirsch said. “It just doesn’t get old for us. And we want to make sure our fans realize that because it doesn’t get old for them either. Every year, we try to do something that brings them to where we are because everyone wants to be here, but they can’t.”

O’Brien, originally from Chicago, has had to learn the Patriots Way as the team’s on-air reporter for the past two seasons. In Minneapolis, Kirsch brought in big names. This year, he trusts his own talent, more familiar to the fans.

“They are as hardcore as they come,” O’Brien says of Pats Nation. “They’ve really welcomed me and embraced me. When I got this job, I knew about the Patriots, but I don’t think you realize how deeply rooted it is until you get there. Everybody lives and breathes the Patriots. On Sunday, everyone’s watching the game whether you’re a sports fan or you’re not.

“I think the fan rally shows that. They don’t get tired of going to Super Bowls. It looked like a gameday at Gillette. I feel like there were some growing pains my first year, like deep history, things I wasn’t here for. I’ve gotten to interact with fans and just figure out the ins and outs.”

READ MORE: Inside Buffalo Wild Wings’ Super Bowl Plans

Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady — those are constants. It feels like those details will never change.

But behind-the-scenes, the content in Foxborough keeps evolving. With seven million Facebook likes, 4.3 million Twitter followers, 3.5 million Instagram followers and 80,000 YouTube subscribers, Kirsch has to keep making progress (for reference, the Rams have 849,000 Facebook likes, 823,000 Twitter followers, 749,000 Instagram followers and 4,500 YouTube subscribers).

“We basically doubled our social team when it comes to producing content,” he says of the 2018 season, going from two full-time social media employees to four. “We’re coming out with as much original stuff as we can for the different platforms. What’s good on Twitter isn’t necessarily good on Instagram and that isn’t necessarily good on Facebook. So, we look at all the platforms and try to feed each beast. YouTube may be the longer stuff and then of course there’s the app and Patriots.com. The Krafts are so forward-thinking. We’re so lucky to have them. They understand what good content is and they’re willing to give us the resources to make it happen.”

Kirsch might as well start preparing for Super Bowl LIV in Miami. As the Patriots keep making Super Bowls, he keeps getting tapped to innovate. So far, in 24 seasons, he’s lived up to the task.

Jeff Eisenband is a broadcaster and writer based in New York City. He previously served as senior editor of ThePostGame and has contributed to the NBA 2K League, NBA Twitch channel, DraftKings, Tennis Hall of Fame, Golfweek, Big Ten Network, Cheddar and Heads Up Daily. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Jeff truly believes Northwestern will win national championships in football and basketball.

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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