How NIL Has Transformed College Athletes into Businesses and Brand Builders — and How Schools Can and Should Help Them

    Brands used to have all the power. This was true in just about every industry. That’s not to say individuals didn’t matter — there were celebrity spokespeople and other ‘stars’ that received acclaim, often in third-party media. But that all began to change, gradually, as the creator economy arose and social media was more about individuals than brands.

    And even in college athletics, where we’re not all that far removed from team-wide social media “bans,” the convergence of the power of the individual was always an inevitability.

    And, just like that, decades-old paradigms in college athletics were transformed — student-athletes on social media wasn’t a distraction or a risk, but the next big thing in the arms race we call recruiting.

    “Texas (Longhorns Athletics) really got behind the opportunity for athletes to make the most of their time there and be representatives of the university,” said Marc Jordan, who worked in social media at the University of Texas Athletics before joining NIL platform INFLCR. “I think as soon as the recruiting part of it caught up where they recognized that recruits were following their athletes and that the more active and the more available and the more that their athletes were on social, the better it was for recruiting.”

    There was a positive correlation between athletes posting on social media and schools getting exposure for their programs to the audience that matters most to coaches — recruits. Even while athletes were barred from monetizing their burgeoning social media brands, there was still value in growing their followers and accounts for a potential future payoff. The mutual benefits meant future recruits could be enticed by seeing not just cool content on athletes’ Stories, but also by the prospect of getting access to such cool content themselves when they played there. Water slides and barber shops only go so far for a generation that virtually worships top social media creators.

    Then NIL monetization came and the floodgates appeared ready to open. For Jordan and his Texas colleagues at the time, they knew many student-athletes would be ready to dive in. But these were just kids; 18-21 year-olds that had spent their lives mastering their sport and their bodies, but with little to no experience managing a potentially professional social media presence.

    “We would work with different teams and we would work with different departments to prepare their athletes, get them onto a better posting cadence, have them understand what’s good and what’s bad, the difference between editorial and commercial content, and reasons why you focus more on that editorial,” said Jordan, who now works with schools across the country that utilize the INFLCR platform. “[We were] making sure that they didn’t just become the NASCAR of Instagram where there are just logos everywhere and there’s no value behind it.”

    It’s all easier said than done. There may be colleges with decades or centuries of experience teaching kids traditional academics and decades of time in teaching student-athletes about sports performance — but they never had to worry much about teaching a diverse set of hundreds of athletes of different backgrounds and experience what it meant to build, monetize, and manage their name, image, and likeness. That’s why many have turned to a number of technology and services platforms that have rapidly arisen to serve this need, most notably INFLCR and Opendorse, which together work with hundreds of colleges across the US to help athletes monetize and build their NILs. For Jordan at INFLCR, he’s found an important part of helping athletes is to create a learning system that will actually work for them.

    “I think in the past I’ve been naive to think that we could give athletes, you know, here are 20 steps to NIL success. No one’s gonna go through 20 steps. No athlete is going to go through and do that,” said Jordan. “We’ve offered some online courses that are quick, that have allowed athletes to learn very quickly — but breaking it down to here are four steps that you can do, here are the things that you could do in the next five minutes that will help you down the road, and then letting them learn as they go; adding more as they do the initial steps, but not trying to overload them too quickly, because there’s one thing these athletes don’t have [is] time.”

    Athletes (and, well, students in general) may not get too excited about their chemistry or English lit class (some do!), but when you start to talk about making money from their NIL, ears perk up. This is when the fun starts, when athletes go from potential pitchmen for their sports programs to start-up businesses in their own right — the business of being them. Just like they work with a team dietitian to break down their nutrition, a strength coach for muscle, and a position coach for their sport — it only makes sense for athletes to get down to the food-log and film-study level of developing a strategy to make their NIL the best it can be. This is the kind of analytical work athletes can get behind, because success can be life-changing. But it’s not easy. Jordan starts at the foundation, discussing who the athlete’s social media audience is and how that changes the day they commit to the school and step on campus.

    “We talk to [the athletes] about [brand] and we also break down kind of their audience because we [approach it] for what [their audience] is that day,” Jordan explained. “So let’s say they want to build their brand in a certain area, we talk to them a little bit about, ‘Okay, well, think about your social media now.”

    Jordan went on to explain the different segments that often comprise an athlete’s audience, from their childhood communities to fans of their high school team, fans of their college team, and everyone in between and beyond. But as athletes get more intentional about their soon-to-be professional brands and who they want to be, it can be a challenging balance to serve the various buckets of their social media audience while also evolving themselves as a person and a brand.

    “As you are figuring out content and as you’re figuring out brand building, [you need to understand] that when you post things and when you want to get interaction, you have to at least satisfy one of those buckets or groups,” said Jordan. “But the more of them that you can get interested in that type of content, the better and higher engagement it’s gonna have.

    “So as you’re adding in different things — like, if you’re interested in music in fashion — understand that those are gonna be harder things to build early on because you’re adding a new type of audience into your current following…We want to make sure that they are setting up their audience to care about them for when they aren’t competing anymore, and for when they do go in [and] enter the workforce or they retire and sail off into the sunset — we just wanna make sure that that audience sticks with them.”

    As these NIL initiatives evolve — and boy are they evolving quickly — they will gain more tentacles. A water slide or a lazy lagoon or other quirky amenities constructed to woo recruits requires little upkeep, let alone department-wide integration, compared to NIL programs. There are parts of college football programs, for example, that exist in a virtual silo, almost completely removed from the rest of athletics. But NIL practices — they work best when everybody is on board, focusing on making the flowery promises of their press releases come to fruition.

    “The only way for these programs and these things to work is for them to have substance,” said Jordan. “The recruit will be able to see right through any cute announcement or any branded program if there isn’t any substance behind it…

    “We need this symbiosis between [INFLCR] and the athletics department.”

    College athletics programs are no longer just fostering student-athletes. There’s an influencer-like, brand-building, NIL developing practice that’s part of the program, as well. And it’s only getting bigger. The recruiting pitch will be less about the novel amenities the program has and more about case studies on how they’ve helped student-athletes make money and build a valuable brand. For many student-athletes, their four years of college sports could be among the most lucrative of their lives, monetarily and otherwise. That time presents an opportunity — it’s the responsibility of their institutions to ensure they’re able to make the most of it.

    LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH MARC JORDAN

    How Creative Teams in Sports Can Execute Thoughtful, Effective Strategy

    It sometimes feels like magic. All of our favorite sports teams — college, pro, US, international — produce and post incredible content every day. There are graphics and GIFs, videos and memes, and they all activate the brand, convey information, and oftentimes tell a story.

    But it’s not magic spells that conjure all this creative, it’s teams of producers and designers that execute a strategy, serve a purpose, represent the brand, and aim to keep up with the insatiable demand of teams and fans. It’s a lot for even the most seasoned creatives to take on, who must balance that volume with their artistic desires and the purpose of each piece. Oh, and at best, they may earn a second or two of fans’ time. Kennon Pearson, who works in Duke Athletics, talked about what’s in mind for him and his team as they begin a new piece.

    “Even though we have our baseline look, a lot of times there still is creative freedom. [So] it’s like, what do I want to do with this? Or what’s the focal point?” said Pearson, who is Assistant Director of Creative Services and Graphic Design for the Blue Devils [Duke Athletics’s name]. “Like with records or number of wins, usually we like to highlight the number in big [font], and then it’ ‘Alright, do we have cutouts for this? Do we want them to be smaller? Do we want them to cover it up? Do we want them to be inside of it?’…

    “Usually when we’re creating, we look at the two things we start with — is there a focal point text or person, and then how do we want to color it?…“My philosophy is always whatever that focal point is, it needs to be pronounced enough to where [users] don’t get banner blindness and they just keep scrolling. They see a number, they see a word, they see a person and they’re like, oh, who is this? What is this? And they stop.”

    Stopping the scroll is the challenge, and beautiful pieces like those Pearson and his colleagues produce are the solution. But while they want to indeed exercise that creative freedom, they are still all creating for the same team, so to speak, the same brand — Duke Athletics. So it now becomes cutting through the clutter that fans see fill their feeds every day, creating something that stands out, but that still looks like Duke. But Pearson takes that responsibility seriously, especially for the special occasions he enumerated like milestones and historic achievements. Those moments, and the creative marking them, shouldn’t look like everything else, and it’s worth the extra effort to make something unique within the Duke palette.

    “It’s really just artistic interpretation where we’re making something unique for every single [moment],” said Pearson, who noted that the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams have dedicated creative staff. “And that can sound like a lot — it is if you think about it — but we’ve gotten so used to doing it, that it’s just kinda like we want those pieces to stand out because I think that no matter what, they’ll still look, and feel like a Duke piece and they’ll always try to keep it to looking like it is part of that team. You don’t want it to look exactly like the last landmark that another team did.”

    Here’s where it’s instructive to get a peek behind the magician’s curtain. There is at least something of a method to the madness, tips for the trade that help to scale creative by controlling (and streamlining) the controllables. Creative teams have to seek out any efficiencies they can because producing graphics and videos and art requires time built-in for, well, the creative part. It was informative and interesting to hear Pearson talk about how he manages the creative production process.

    “One thing for example is we use a lot of the same sizes,” said Pearson, “something that’s a 4×5, 16×9 — so I have a folder on our Box [cloud storage]…where I have a 4×5 PSD, a 16×9 PSD. Or if it’s something where I know I need to use multiple artboards, I’ve got that set up, so that way I’m not having to open it up, add a color and add guides every single time; it’s already set up…

    “Currently I’ve been using my own library where I have logos saved, any common textures that I use for all sports or even for some sports — colors, because we do have different blues…“But basically everything is starred. I have templates saved, I have folders in Box that have textures I might need. So everything is accessible as quickly as possible.”

    Even the most streamlined operation does not mean creative teams become factories, content for the sake of content. There is no quenching the thirst of fans for quality content, but the asks add up and time and resources are never endless. Every digital, social, and marketing team must be inclined to ask why. Why do we need to post this, create this, ask for this, to dedicate some of those scarce time and resources for this?

    “In general, everything we design…we try to make sure that it has a purpose and we have an outcome we wanna reach instead of just making it for the sake of making it,” said Pearson…It would be cool to do some more fun stuff like [memes], but I think that in general, we try to make everything as purposeful as possible, and it works really well for us.” 

    There is a temptation nowadays to measure everything in raw numbers. When the success of a given social media operation, for example, is judged in its end-of-season report by impressions, engagements, views, and engagement rate, it seems perfectly sensible to say each piece of creative should be judged the same way. There can be value in that. But it may be missing the forest for the trees.

    Pearson noted that, yes, analytics are important. They do tell part of the story as to how much the creative resonated with fans and followers. But Pearson does see the forest, too, talking about impact and value that goes beyond double-taps and hearts. When the creative team is charged with producing vast volumes of content that most fans will see for a split-second as they scroll or tap through their feeds, it comes down to making those moments matter and setting up the operation for scale.

    “It becomes kind of a gut feeling,” said Pearson, mulling over the notion of success of creative. “Like, when we’re putting something together [we ask] what is going to be impactful? And if even just a few people like it and see it, that’s still successful. Of course, you want it to be big numbers and huge shares; you want your analytics to be insane. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that something was a failure.

    “I think that a lot of times what you might consider a failure is is it something that we created, like a template, that didn’t get used or used enough or didn’t make sense? I think that’s probably more I would say is a success is — is it something that we made that is used frequently if it’s a template? Or if it’s not a template, is it something that caught somebody’s eye?”

    The bar is only getting higher for content to stand out and to have impact. There is more competition for attention, ever-more ephemeral trends and aesthetics, and a rising demand for creative (because we’ve gotten better at extracting revenue from creative efforts, too). The creative teams of the future will be even more efficient, removing any friction in the production process so that they can focus on what they do best — create.

    LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH KENNON PEARSON

    If Everything Matters in the Process for Coaches and Athletes, Social Media Does Too

    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.

    LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH ALEX CERVASIO

    How to Maximize Resources in Sports Marketing at Any Level

    Not enough time, not enough people, not enough budget and resources.

    No matter the size and scale, pro or college, American or abroad — the next department that says they wouldn’t love to have more time, budget, resources, and people will be the first (okay, there are some exceptions).

    But bigger isn’t always better — except when it is. And smaller and more agile isn’t always better — except when it is. That’s why it was so enlightening to learn from Michael Murtaugh, who has spent time in college athletics marketing at a number of levels, most recently at Iowa (a B1G school with a relatively massive budget and department) and today at Montana (a Big Sky school with a relatively smaller budget and department, compared to its FBS counterparts). Both schools are D-I, both have passionate fanbases, and both have talented student-athletes that achieve in their sport and their studies. But when it comes to marketing programs and resources, Murtaugh and his team at Montana must be more mindful of how they spend their time and use their resources. The team is leaner and the initiatives perhaps a bit more scrutinized. However, both school A and school B face challenges; they’re just — different.

    “I’m glad that I’ve been at both levels…I think there’s a lot of value in each [experience]. I don’t think one’s better or worse than the other. They’re just different and you just have to figure out what’s important to you and what matters to you,” said Murtaugh, who also spent time at Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, SUNY Brockport, and even an internship at Clemson. “You talked about having a lot of people at Iowa — .the department is probably two and a half times the size of the one here in Montana — so sometimes things might take a little bit longer to get implemented just because of the layers, where here you talk to one or two people. 

    “Now there’s good and bad to that because on the way up you’re like, well, did you think about this, this and this? And you’re like, oh, I guess I didn’t. Whereas if you’d had less people you might make some errors because things hadn’t been thoroughly checked through, so then you have to say oops, won’t do that again.”

    There are the pluses and minuses of the bigger departments and budgets. But one truth is that more resources means the athletic department gets to take more swings. When you shrink the ledger, each investment becomes that much more of a big deal. And therefore each decision must stand up to more scrutiny. If everything’s important, then nothing’s important. And if you try to execute every idea, well, nothing gets done. For college athletics marketers, there is a constant balance at play. Because there are so many sports, so many fan segments to reach and engage, and a mandate to make every sport and event the best possible. For Murtaugh and his colleagues, it means they have to identify and focus on what matters most.

    “It’s really trying to figure out what is important. What should we be focusing our energy on? Because if we’re focusing our energy on like ten different things, we’re not really doing anything. And so what good is that?…,” he said. “And so it’s like, what are some of the things that are fads that it might be nice to know this now, but six months from now, it’s going to be nothing again. Do we spend our time on that?…You just have to kind of try to figure it out along the way, see industry trends, see what other people are doing, see what other people are having success with.”

    Murtaugh also discussed how that mindset permeates their strategy 24/7/365. It’s not just about each game, each season, and each academic year. The volume and the speed of college sports necessitates always staying (or trying to stay) a couple steps ahead.

    “What are some of things that we just cannot do without?,” Murtaugh asked rhetorically, reinforcing the equation of economy. “But what are some of the things that we want to do in the future?…Let’s start putting a plan together so when we’re talking in March and April of next year we’re hitting the ground running. So [come] summer we’ll be ready to go and we won’t have any downtime because we’re already going to have our kind of our marching orders because we already know where we want to go.”

    Regardless of size, resources, or any number of variables, all organizations could benefit from the scrutiny and planning Murtaugh preaches. Plans, preparation, and certainly execution cannot happen in a silo, however. Cross-team coordination is becoming more valuable and expected than ever. Part of it is aligning goals, to be sure, but something else is at play here, too — a convergence around content. While there are different skillsets and tactics that permeate each aspect of a college athletics department, content is currency for most — telling their story, conveying their messages, and winning over their customers — content amplifies and is often the foundation of those efforts. Murtaugh talked about the various hats college sports pros have to wear, regardless of department. It’s not always ideal, but it’s often out of necessity (and increasingly so).

    “Marketing departments are kind of becoming game operations/content creators. In my opinion that’s a different person…it’s a different brain [and] mindset,” Murtaugh explained. “So to be hopping back and forth from one to the other — I think that can be a little bit taxing and I think that’s why you’re starting to see some people [specialize]…

    “I don’t think that we’ll ever be at a point where we’ll be able to have you just do [one thing], because I do think that there is some benefit to having multiple positions, but who’s the one that’s saying enough is enough? Like, alright, I’m already doing this and this and this. I don’t want to do this either, but it has to get done and you’re the only person that can do it.”

    Back to the main idea at hand — that ubiquitous challenge of always wanting for more resources — because many of Murtaugh’s notions come together here. It’s about making each other better, the whole ‘sum of the parts is greater than the whole’ principle. There sure will be times when we have to wear the less familiar hats, but when we work together, align goals, and maximize the skills and resources at disposal as a group — that’s how an athletic department (or any organization) operates at beyond 100%. Murtaugh summed it up perfectly:

    “You get so much more accomplished when you’re a bunch of we’s instead of a bunch of me’s.”

    LISTEN TO MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MURTAUGH

    How to Marry Brand and ROI in Social Media and Sports

    Social media and sports pros are asked to deliver a lot. They must drive the key ‘vanity’ metrics to ensure the brand is reaching a wide audience, keep the engagement rate high in order to be attractive to sponsors, aaaand help develop new fans across generations — and do all that while building and enhancing the brand of the organization and activating their presence across a number of disparate platforms. And, oh yeah, create content and track and interpret data, too.

    Yeah, it’s a lot.

    The volume of demands and output requires a keen sense of brand development, and a deep understanding of each social channel. There are still some that press ‘send’ and see their content, copy, and creative plastered across platforms identically to drive up the vanity metrics; but the vast majority do not, and for good reason. I recount all this to set up the insights offered by Austin Penny, who helped develop and execute social media strategy for Auburn Athletics and Auburn Football, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — recognizing each organization’s unique goals and how to effectively execute against them across platforms, while staying true to stated brand goals and values. Penny was able to frame the discussion in clear and stark terms, noting the similarities and differences of moving from Auburn to the NFL and the Bucs.

    “Everything that we did at Auburn was based around recruiting,” said Penny, who had two separate stints working at Auburn around his time with the Bucs. “At the end of the day, you’re creating content to show what it’s like to be an Auburn Tiger; [to] really give that 14 to 18 year-old the best insight of what it would be like if they came and played a sport and studied at Auburn. So that was our goal every single day is how can we create content that’s going to show that?…

    “[Then] with the Bucs], it went from recruiting to revenue…”[It was] ‘let’s do our best to create content, sell [social] media, work with corporate partnerships to make sure that we’re marrying the right content to the right partner.'”

    The trick is to create content worth marrying to the partners in a way that aligns with the brand that the Bucs wanted to put out there, too. A brand that fans would want to identify with and wrap their arms around, and also a brand with which sponsors would want to partner. When Penny joined the team, the Bucs were about to set sail (sorry, had to do it) on a reinvigorated brand strategy, creating a desirable brand in which fans could take pride. It’s one thing to talk about a brand, another to articulate it, and yet another to execute and convey it. Penny described the pillars that guided him and the Bucs on social media. With an identity in place, they were ready to go when moves on the football side presented an opportunity — wind in their sails, if you will.

    “We had fearless, we had being piratical and really taking advantage of our mascot — who we are — [and] we had being heartfelt,” said Penny in describing the Bucs’ brand pillars. “Then you start to have these [player] signings where you’re getting Tom [Brady], you’re getting these guys and the hype is starting to build, and then you’re rolling out this new brand.

    “And you can see it from [around] last February into April — the brand transition, along with the jersey change, that’s kinda what helped spur that on, and then you get a brand that is high-class. You get a brand that’s really focused on the customer service side and look how cool we are. You want to be a part of this, you definitely want to be a part of this. Look, we’re winning now. “

    Penny conceded that, of course, winning makes everything easier. But even the best teams still face the challenges that every organization does in trying to be intentional about their brand — being engaging to different fan demos on different platforms. The tactics, voice, and content packaging, substance, and strategy can all differ when speaking to diverse groups of fans and on different social networks. It’s not about trying to be everything to everybody; that’s a doomed proposition. To have success on each social channel is to respect and use those differences; to understand who you’re talking to on each platform and how they like to engage there. The brand’s north star can be consistent even as it floats to different platforms; it’s not unlike how, well, real humans have distinct personalities even if the way they talk around their aunts and uncles is different from the way they talk around their friends. Penny gave a thoughtful explanation of how the Bucs looked at some of the major social platforms.

    “On Twitter, we were way more engaging, we knew that we had to constantly be talking back to fans — not in a bad way, but talking back to fans and engaging with them, making them feel like they were a part of this whole thing,” said Penny, who today works as a Social Media Manager for sports digital and social marketing agency STN Digital.

    “On Facebook, we started a Facebook Group for our fans and we would always be in that engaging with them, giving them opportunities for giveaways and that type of thing. So we were a little bit more not necessarily reserved, but we were more appreciative, I guess you could say, as a brand. On Instagram there were times where we were telling people to walk the plank because they were clapping at us and saying how terrible of a game we had or how bad we were, and we’re just like ‘Hey, you know what, whatever we’re coming after you at times.’”

    The reason it is so necessary to have presence across a growing number of platforms is that teams and schools and sports organizations are trying to reach everybody. They’re trying to reach existing fans across a variety of sociodemographic groups, while also reaching and converting potential new fans, particularly among the younger cohorts. It’s easier said than done, however, and it’s why hitting big numbers overall is not always a clear signifier of success on social media. And it’s why such a thoughtful approach across social networks is essential.

    Penny broke it down further: “It’s not necessarily about just growing platforms,” he said, “but it’s doing it the way that we know that we should — are we putting out content that our fans are actually engaging with and then, to take that a step further, how are we locking in on the 14 to 18-year-old next crop of NFL fans? Are we showing content that’s resonating with them?

    “And then it’s like, okay, how are we going to do our job so we can make sure that 10 years from now we’re still able to have a job because there is that next crop of fans coming. And that’s every professional sport league…”

    Penny continued, hitting on what guides social media teams in making economical decisions about how and where to deploy their limited resources.

    “Every platform has its own world, really, and you may have fans or followers that follow you on every single platform and kind of going back to my earlier point about having a different voice on [each platform] that kind of gives them incentive to follow you on everything. But from actually breaking it out and figuring out where we’re going to put our resources, it’s really prioritization of the buckets of the people that we’re trying to hit.

    “Every platform is going to have a key demo that you’re going to hit and once you figure that out and you kind of understand that better, you can really start to attack it, divvy up your resources better.”

    There’s no one way to identify success on social media, because each organization comes with its own goals and distinct brand. The best know what they’re trying to do, they’re intentional about it. Every decision, post, and piece of content is not about what will earn the highest engagement — that’s part of it, sure — but it’s what will earn the highest engagement while helping ‘x’ goal and conveying ‘y’ brand and reaching ‘z’ audience, among a number of other letters of the alphabet representing variables.

    There are a lot of pathways to earning the engagement and impressions that many use to measure success, but the routes and destinations are unique to each organization. Every strategy needs to start by mapping out the routes and destinations that make sense for them. Don’t ever lose or forget the compass, it’s the only way to get where you need to go.

    LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH AUSTIN PENNY

    Episode 189 Snippets: How Storytelling Sits at the Center of Clemson Athletics’s Social Media Success

    On episode 189 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Tyson Hutchins, Senior Director – Creative Solutions for Clemson Athletics.

    What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

    Ideas on How College Athletics Can Adapt to Potentially Challenging Financial Circumstances

    It’s a scary time in sports. Heck, it’s a scary time in the whole world, as mankind takes on the threat of the coronavirus. 

    And while we all remain optimistic, because it’s all we can do, leaders in the sports space are growing increasingly wary of how the sports business will look on the other side. This is especially dire in college athletics where the notion of the college football season getting canceled threatens the livelihood of countless programs throughout college sports, which rely on the revenues generated by football to keep them afloat. Athletic Directors, according to polls, are more worried than ever about losing out on ticket sales and donations, still, even if there remains hope college football in some form can end up on TV (i.e. with empty stadiums), keeping media revenue on the table.

    For years now, many college athletics programs have seemed to the outside world like major corporations, with charter flights, company cars, and more accoutrements on campus than Club Med. College football ain’t going away, but the other sports its revenue supports are at risk and it means college athletics programs must get more creative and pointed than ever to make it mean something for donors to support their school and its programs.

     

    Coaches Glad-Handing All Year

    Throughout the season, coaches are head-down all about the football — preparing for practice, meetings, watching film, meeting recruits, talking to media, and doing their weekly call-in shows. In the offseason, they’re doing talks at booster events and quarterback clubs, meeting corporate big-wigs, and, yes, still spending a lot of time on recruiting and football.

    But with revenue shortfalls from an absence of ticket sales and considerable expected decreases in donations, how can external relations become an integral part of their role, while not diminishing their ability to coach and recruit? It’s time now to consider that question and to brainstorm. 

    How can coaches make the days of more donors, and reinforce those donor activities and feelings? This goes beyond football coaches, to every coach in the programs that may literally be saved through the generosity of donors and partners that are able. Could coaches spend 15 minutes a day recording personalized thank you’s to a few donors? Could they write or sign a few handwritten thank you notes in the middle of each day? Could they recreate a campus visit tour for donors, the same way they delight recruits and donors that visit on campus in more normal times?

    Without the payoff of games and in-person events, these little things can matter a lot and can scale. 

    But where do the student athletes, whose experiences and ability to play the sport they love in college, fit into the equation?

    Put a Face to the Funding: Activating Student Athletes

    Sure, some big donors will see their name on a building or a coaching position endowment for perpetuity. But with athletes in sports like wrestling, field hockey, track and field, and more at risk of losing their ability to compete for their school and have the experience they imagined all their lives, it’s more of a human game than ever before.

    No, most of these kids are not in dire straits of not having food to eat, healthcare, and a bed to sleep in at night [though some are]. But they will suffer in the months and years to come, as schools can no longer afford to pay for them to play their sport, and perhaps their scholarship to attend the school, in general. But what if donating to a school was more personal, and benefactors could see, could form a relationship with, and could connect with someone living out their dreams thanks to a donation? It’s more like an adoption than simply handing over a check to help fill the coffers of the college. 

    It reminds me of a customer at Greenfly (where I work), a non-profit organization that uses funds to help pay for the education of kids who have lost a parent in the line of military duty. The organization’s cause is laudable, to be sure, but it means even more when donors get personalized thank you messages from the individual kids whose life they’re improving. It’s a back and forth for life, and it makes the donation that much more meaningful. 

    Could college athletics, by necessity, become more personal for the fans and donors that support it, and help programs and student athlete experiences that would otherwise be lost amidst this pandemic? The transactional nature of it all must evolve, but — especially if live events are fan-less or limited in scope and people — the nature of the value exchange for paying fans and donors must evolve, as well.

     

    Giving Value Back to Fans and Donors in Creative and Original Ways

    Think about the experiences fans and donors and partners receive in exchange for their dollars. They get the live games and the atmosphere, and many enjoy VIP experiences like watching warm-ups from the sideline. Some may have their kids on the field to high-five players as they run in, hang out with prominent alums in the premium club, and get to shake hands (or maybe ‘dap’ nowadays) with the coaches and Athletic Director. 

    But if fans aren’t allowed to come to games or the paradigm of experiences either doesn’t work now or needs to evolve, how can there still be value given back to these valuable individuals who help fund all the sports programs, football and well beyond?

    Could college athletics do its own take on the ‘Cameo’ app and record special messages on request for donors, like a coach wishing a Happy Birthday to a major donor’s husband or a broadcaster recording someone’s voicemail? Heck, with the imminent arrival of new NIL policies for student athletes, could colleges facilitate similar opportunities for student athletes, with a portion going in their pocket and the rest funding athletics? Or maybe a prominent alumnus can drop into a board meeting on Zoom for an impromptu virtual meet and greet. The creativity is boundless and perhaps as needed as ever as programs rethink how they can make donors feel valued, and give value back in new ways. Because the old ways may either be more limited or not even possible.

    In many ways, such evolution is a natural progression already gradually taking place in sports, as season ticket holders all become ‘members’ for the program, and receive value well beyond the face value of their ticket for admission to games.

    What Membership Could Mean Going Forward

    The concept of being a ‘member’ is more prominent in European and Australian sports, but the nomenclature, at least, has been making its way to the US in the last decade. College athletics by and large typically has a more emotional tie than pro sports to begin with and having an affiliation with the school is something that goes beyond a guaranteed seat and tailgating spot. If fans aren’t able to go to games, how can they still see value from being a ‘member?’ And, heck, even when stadiums do open back up, how can fans that live thousands of miles away still feel it’s worthwhile for them to be a paying ‘member’ (or booster or supporter) of a school and its program?

    We can look to those European clubs for inspiration, many of whom have multiple tiers of memberships, and have been monetizing hordes of fans for years that may never attend a game in their lifetime. Members can receive special merchandise and tchotchkes, and many get access to premium digital content. During this COVID-19 pandemic we’re seeing teams all over the world get creative with value they can offer to fans — workouts, nutrition advice, access to Zoom calls with media and IG Lives with players and coaches, a firehose of classic content, and random (but requested) “pop-ins” from mascots to a Zoom call. There are so many ways teams and programs can provide unique value, and it’s time to exhaustively consider all those options, determine what’s feasible, and make sure fans can get value even while they may not be able to go to games or feel they can afford to write a check just because they love their school. That emotional tie can stay strong, even as donations dwindle, and one more tactic to consider is to embrace the idea of mini contributions, when fans, students, alumni, and donors can only give a little at a time.

     

    footballcf

    Micro Donations

    For some time now, micro-payments have been a part of the gaming world, whether gamers are paying for extra lives or for a cool ‘skin’ for their avatar. Clemson University has also enjoyed success for a while with their ‘IPTAY’ program (I pay ten a year) in which alumni, among others, vow to pay $10 a year. Micro-donations can be a way to support the program and the school, just like gamers support their favorite video games without breaking the bank. And, over thousands of transactions, it can add up to significant revenue.

    In the aftermath of this pandemic (let alone during it), when it’s not realistic for many to part with hundreds of dollars, let alone thousands, how can schools get more creative in offering micro methods of donation? Could they pay a few bucks for a custom avatar or graphic to be produced? Or sign up to give a dollar for every touchdown the team scores? Or pay a dollar to access a mobile video game the team produces? These are very off-the-cuff ideas, but the point is that micropayments are already growing and micro-donations could, and maybe should, be the wave of the future for colleges, college athletics, and beyond.


    It’s a time of great uncertainty and apprehension for college athletics leaders, coaches, staff, and student athletes. Unless things change, the anticipated budget that helps fuel so many sports programs that operate in the red simply may not be there when all is said and done. Desperate times call for creativity and creating value wherever possible. It may not be a revolution, but an evolution certainly must come. The experiences of thousands of student athletes and collegiate sports depend on it.

    Episode 162 Snippets: Brandon Berrio Helps Lead LSU Football’s Social Content Strategy and Operations Through a Dream Season

    On episode 162 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brandon Berrio, Associate Director – Creative and Digital Content for LSU Athletics.

    What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

    Episode 160 Snippets: Andrew Brewster Developed a Michigan State Athletics Blog for USA Today While also Working a Full-Time Job

    On episode 160 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Andrew Brewster, Editor, SpartansWire (Michigan State Athletics blog for USA Today).

    What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

    Episode 156 Snippets: Ty Rogers on the Keys to Great Sports Content and Creative

    On episode 156 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Ty Rogers, Freelance Content Creator formerly with Michigan/Duke/Indiana Athletics.

    What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.