It wasn’t that long ago that social media was anathema for college athletics.
For high-level college coaches, social media was at best a distraction for their student-athletes and at worst was a place the athletes could get themselves or their school in trouble; let alone be exposed to toxic vitriol from fans. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Slowly but surely, coaches realized the power of those platforms and how a new era had arrived for not just their student-athletes, but themselves, too. Alex Cervasio was among the early sherpas showing many high-level coaches the way. He helped them see the opportunity this new era presented for them.
“I think before the internet and social media really, coaches were at the mercy, so to speak, of the gatekeepers; and a lot of those gatekeepers were beat writers and the newspaper people before them, or the SIDs at the university,” said Cervasio, who heads up CVAS Consulting and co-founded The Daily Coach. “I think first and foremost, it was controlling that message. Not letting the gatekeepers dictate what is said about you and what you’re saying or what people think about you.”
Outsized coach personalities of decades past were ultimately built through beat writer stories, postgame interviews, and press conferences. So now, more than ever, coaches, athletes, executives — all these public individuals — already had the notoriety; now they get to frame it. Cervasio said it’s authentic intention that forms the core of an effective approach. Find what makes you naturally stand out and activate it.
“(It’s) really leaning into every coach’s uniqueness,” Cervasio explained. “What is different about [them]? What is that coach’s niche that differentiates them that no one else can copy? That is something that’s going to appeal to the decision-maker, whether it’s the student-athlete themselves or in their family or in their circle to get them on campus.
“The coaches that are successful are the ones that are authentic, that do not try to imitate or copy someone else.”
That authenticity is so key because if a coach portrays themselves one way publicly and acts another way privately, well, word gets out. It’s too easy these days — word always gets out. And all of a sudden the story coaches are telling to recruits and donors isn’t so credible. Those stakes are everything for coaches, trustworthiness is everything for any leader.
“If you make it your own, just like any creator, any person out there — if you’re putting something out there, you have to own it. (Otherwise) people see through that, especially nowadays,” Cervasio asserted. “It has to be raw and it has to be true, and it has to be the same person that they see on social media that they’re going to see if you’re sitting in the living room and you’re offering [recruits] scholarships to come play for you.”
Coaches now appreciate more than ever the power, benevolent or not, of social media platforms. And they see what it can mean for their student-athletes, too. Whether the players have professional careers ahead of them or (more likely) have four years to spend in the spotlight sports presents — coaches have a responsibility to help them make the most of those four years. Now with athletes able to monetize their name-image-likeness (NIL). And while there are risks to regularly engaging on social media, the mindset is shifting from abstinence to responsible use.
“I think coaches — you’re seeing it now — there’s educational components in the offseason, making sure [players] know the do’s and the don’ts the best practices of how to leverage that,” said Cervasio. “Some are better than others. Some athletic departments and schools are better than others, but I think everyone’s cognizant that this thing is not going anywhere.
“Let’s embrace it. Let’s educate everyone on how to best utilize it. And let’s be honest with ourselves that if we do it correctly, there are going to be some wins and, you know, unfortunately, there’s always going to be a negative connotation in the shadow and you just have to ignore those focus on what you can control.”
The positives outweigh the negatives by a country mile. Many players can change their lives through their notoriety as student-athletes. For some, it’ll mean spending money for food and leisure or rent money for families; for others, proactively building a brand can set them up for life well beyond the playing field. Because it’s not just about followers, it’s about taking advantage of that limited time when perhaps more doors are open than they ever will be for the rest of their lives, Cervasio posited.
“(Student-athletes) are building a brand on campus,” he said. “I say it all the time — when you’re on, let’s just say University of Oregon’s campus for four years, you can pick up the phone…and a major booster, a major donor will take your phone call because you are playing football for Oregon or basketball for Oregon. The minute you step off campus, unless you have that relationship or that one-to-one or maybe you won the national title or whatnot, it’s a lot harder for you to get in those doors and those phone calls and meetings.”
For athletes, for coaches, for executives — for anyone, really — the low-hanging fruit may be to just lean into what earned the notoriety in the first place. But this goes back to Cervasio’s earlier point about being different. If everyone is a football player, everyone is the same. Cervasio said each student-athlete, or whomever, should figure out what they love outside of their primary occupation/sport. Because it’s not about ‘constructing’ a brand or persona, it’s just being yourself and indulging it. Remember, people don’t engage with ‘brands’ quite so much, they engage with people.
“I always go back to what is your passion? You know, what gets you up in the morning besides when you’re playing (your sport)?” Cervasio said. “Do you read books, do you play video games, do you want to design golf courses in your free time? Whatever it might be, everyone has something unique that is maybe a little quirky or that they don’t share enough, but you got to lean into what makes you [different].
“So you need to be strategic about what you’re doing and what you’re trying to shape and who you are because at the end day — I always go back to you gotta be honest; what they see out there they need to see on social media, in person, on the playing field, in the interviews, all that. Otherwise, the engagement won’t be there.”
It’s easier to be honest and genuine when you’re in control. And if there is one thing that unites all these individuals that have achieved to an elite level in their chosen occupation or sport, it’s that they seek to control what they can control, give 110%, and insert your other favorite sports cliches. Social media and personal brand are part of that. For coaches, mastering social media is one more ingredient for a successful recruiting recipe. Cervasio hammers home to those he works with that it’s all important to the process.
“Everything matters,” he said. “If you don’t treat everything as the most important thing to success, then you’re going to miss something that could have helped you do something. People always say I don’t have time for social media, I don’t have time to do this video, I don’t have time to do all of that. You make the time…Everything matters.”
If you’re gonna do something, do it right. Because it’s all connected. The best coaches and the best athletes tend to be the best at building their brand. That’s no coincidence. Many adhere to their ‘process,’ and social media is now part of it. And we’re all better for it.
On episode 219 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Alex Cervasio, Founder, CVAS Consulting (Working Coaches, Athletes, Executives, and Brands + also Co-founder, The Daily Coach.
Listen to episode 219 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Alex Cervasio, Founder, CVAS Consulting (Working Coaches, Athletes, Executives, and Brands + also Co-founder, The Daily Coach.
Listen to episode 218 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, a best of, featuring parts of conversations with:
- Steven Horowitz, Neil’s brother took us inside the mind of a ‘normal’ fan for a special episode 150 — full episode
- Chris Grosse, Penn State Athletics — full episode
- Kassie Epstein, Gillette Stadium — full episode
- Dan Marrazza, then with the Tampa Bay Lightning / now with the Pro Football Hall of Fame — full episode
- Chris Gehring, then with the Washington Wizards / now with RedPeg Marketing — full episode
Social media and sports roles didn’t exist when most of us were born. We couldn’t list Social Media Manager for a sports team as a dream job for the fifth-grade yearbook. So the pathways, the lifestyle, the strategies — everybody is still trying to figure it all out as we build it.
So it’s instructive to hear from those continuing to pave the way, leaving legacies in their path. Amie Kiehn has been one of those trailblazers. She didn’t start in the smsports stone age (that would be me), but what she accomplished in her 5+ years with the Carolina Panthers and what continues to do now as the Head of Community at Gondola has touched the industry in meaningful ways. I recently spoke with Kiehn on the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast and came away enlightened and inspired.
Here are six big lessons for social media and sports (and beyond) from the thoughtful, reflective Kiehn:
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
Kiehn talked about making her own breaks — sending countless cold emails to pros in the sports space, getting replies back from only a few. Years later, she runs into many of those people as peers, many of whom were too busy to get back to ambitious Amie back then. Reaching out is free, and doing so instantly separates you from 90% of aspiring students and young professionals that don’t.
“It took a lot of [bravery] to just reach out to people and be like, it’s okay if they don’t reply,” Kiehn told me. “So that’s what I would tell a lot of young people — if they’re willing to put themselves out there, the universe will reward them with hopefully good things.”
Learn to lead in different ways for different people
The best social media staffs in sports have a lot going for them — creative talent, resourcefulness, buy-in, and strategy — but leadership and strong, cohesive teams are underappreciated and integral. Great social media squads also require a diverse set of players, all working together in harmony to manage the output, the brand, and the short-term and long-term strategy. Before beginning her sports and social media career, Kiehn spent years teaching through the Teach For America program. She talked about the important lessons she learned from her time in the classroom, where not every student learned the same way and could be instructed the same way. She took that to heart with the panthers
“So once I realized that, and where I felt like I was hitting my stride, was when I was leading where not everyone got the same Amie,” she said. “Some people just wanted to be like, ‘Hey, I’m good. Approve my budget. Let me go.’ And other people needed some nurturing, which was fine because that’s the type of leader I am…I’m an empath, I really care about people deeply. So that was an easy thing to click once I got it…That’s how I felt like I was being my full self, when I was leading and helping others.”
Don’t take this all too seriously
When every tweet, Story, and TikTok will reach tens or hundreds of thousands or millions, it may be natural to feel a little intimidation. You’re part of a team that works hard and plays a game among fierce competitors where winning is everything. You’re part of a multi-million or billion-dollar business with big budgets and impressive production teams. But you can’t get bogged down in all that, can’t be afraid of failure and taking healthy risks. Sports are supposed to be fun, social media is supposed to be relatable. Kiehn and her team embraced a spirit of innovation and a dedication to, well, fun.
“I think sometimes we can take things too seriously in the content space and that’s okay,” Kiehn explained. “At the Panthers, I always felt like our voice was something that you could kind of poke fun at yourself a little bit. So we often would make content that maybe wasn’t super-polished and didn’t always have the most pristine look, like it was a meme that we saw…We really tried to have fun with it.
“I think that was how we had so many (social media) home runs… is because we tried to have fun ourselves and make our team laugh; then we had set the precedent that like, okay, we’re going to try it. The Panthers team always would hear me say this: ‘Okay. Let’s try it. And let’s watch the comments like hawks’ We would post stuff…[being] like, let’s [just] post it. But let’s immediately get feedback from people. And if it’s not a hit, let’s just take it off. But if it is a hit, let’s find out what we did there that we can try to capitalize again on.”
Sometimes you need to reset and that’s okay
It’s very easy to get addicted to the routine. You kind of have to, at times, in the social media and sports world just to keep up and keep your sanity. But that doesn’t mean teams should eschew a consistent pursuit of progress and keep everything the same even if it feels stale, stilted, or no longer suitable. This was key insight Kiehn picked up in her time as a teacher, where classrooms could get chaotic at times and everybody just needed a reset.
Said Kiehn: “If I felt like things were not grooving in the right way, I’d be like ‘Alright, let’s all get together, let’s talk about it. Is there something that I’m doing? Is there a process that needs to be rehashed out? [Does] someone just kind of need a break? Let’s talk this out so we can fix it and it’s not that big of a deal. So I started trying to make those conversations happen more often.
“So that’s a big thing of [being a leader] for me was [to be] someone willing to call out [when] it seems like either morale-wise, content-wise, just the process of how we’re managing projects — do we need to reevaluate something? So I always was fine with re-evaluating something, even if it was a process that I loved and [others feel] this isn’t working.”
What comes first — the buy-in or the measured success?
Okay, it’s kind of a trick question. Because each begets more of the other. In learning from Kiehn and what drove such a great reputation and results with the Carolina Panthers social media, she attributed a lot to the trust and buy-in. That included her immediate supervisors all the way up to team owners David and Nicole Tepper. And that trust gave them the agency to continue to take chances, have fun, and continue to build the social media brand of the team to the point that fans came to anticipate each post and poke.
“Our team really felt pretty empowered that — if the ownership group is being like, yes, you guys are kind of funny, keep it up — then it really enticed us to keep momentum,” Kiehn reflected. “When you’re organically making fun content and you’re hopping on trends that make sense for the brand, it shows up in the numbers.
“And we had [created] such an established voice on social that people were like, oh, I want to see what the Panthers do…We were getting great numbers because we were doing something that was fun and different, and people really liked that.”
Work-life balance is possible in sports, it’s just defined differently
The last couple of years has seen the sports industry face a reckoning amidst the broader ‘great resignation’ happening in the US. Kiehn herself is among them, becoming the Head of Community at Gondola, where she can continue to support creatives and pros in social media, and at a job that also affords her more time at home and with her family. Most everybody accepts that sports business happens during business hours AND during non-business hours; sports are weekdays and weekends, sports happens on holidays, and there will be early mornings and late nights. But sustainability is more possible when the working hours are more a series of peaks and valleys, and not excessive with no end. Kiehn gave a thoughtful perspective on the challenge of work-life balance in the sports industry, who says the working hours in sports are ‘like a pendulum.’
“I honestly don’t believe there can be work-life balance in how people imagine it, [as in] I do work 50% and I live my life [50%]; I don’t think that works,” she said. “I think people in this time right now are craving flexibility. So I hope that in this new workforce we could have something where you both work and life can be flexible and that you can finally hopefully maybe have more of an equilibrium.
“I always try to remind people that…it’s like a pendulum a little bit; some days with more heavy work, some days heavier at home…I think all people should have…as much of an equilibrium that works for you as possible.”
Thanks so much to Amie for lending her thoughtful, articulate insight and expertise! We will continue to learn from her and leaders like her for years to come…