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  • Writer's pictureNic Makepeace

Three lessons we can learn from College sports

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

The recent COVID-enforced hiatus from live sports has allowed many forward-thinking sports organisations time to reassess, look around or as my colleague Lewis Wiltshire put it “fix their aeroplane”.

Taking inspiration from others is a key part of digital sport. Learning the key lessons from a variety of different organisations and adapting to your own content, strategy and thinking is an important way to keep improving.

A great place to start is by looking at US college sports teams. Their social-first style that seeks to reflect their younger athletes, innovative content creation skills and unparalleled focus on creating stars out of players are why the top college football and basketball teams are at the forefront of innovation in the digital sport content arena.

The importance of social media in the fiercely competitive battleground of recruiting high school athletes has given colleges a more tangible, on-field reason to invest in digital to help sway the next crop of stars to their particular team. This combined with new “Name, Image and Likeness” (NIL) laws, which will allow college athletes the opportunity to earn money from endorsements for the first time, means that a strong social media team is quickly becoming a key part of a successful college sports program. In fact, we at Seven League consider the current top three ranked college football programs on the field (LSU, Clemson and Ohio State) to be the three industry leaders in digital within college sports.

This competitive element to social media within college sports has fuelled innovation over the past few years. I have picked out three key lessons everyone in digital sports can learn from:

Lesson 1 - Reflect the experience of the athlete

The key target market of successful college sports teams are prospective young athletes. Their channels, therefore, seek to reflect that experience of a student athlete. This provides fascinating behind the scenes access that works as a fantastic second-screen viewing experience.

An example of this is the Clemson Tigers, whose Director of New and Creative Media Jonathan Gantt described their strategy as “to utilize social media to reach recruits and to create content that answers the question: What’s it like to be a Clemson Tiger?”. Their weekly season-long vlog, which is in the fifth season, serves as part sports documentary and part hype video, providing an in-depth look at the lives of the players, whilst mixing in innovative editing skills and unparalleled access.

Examples such as this only scratch the surface of how college teams are catering to younger audiences. The sheer quality of editing combined with a willingness to try something different in their approach stands out as a key differentiator to many professional teams’ content.

Lesson 2 - Storytelling is vital

As predicted in our 2020 Seven League Key Trends, ‘Storytelling overtakes Performance Marketing’, the importance of well-considered storytelling is increasingly vital and the top college sports teams consistently tell the story of their brand. @LSUFootball’s digital team gave a masterclass in how to tell a story through hype videos on their whirlwind journey to becoming national champions in this past season.

It simply does not get much better than this. The powerful narration of Louisiana born actor Anthony Mackie, silky smooth transitions and impactful changes of pace all combine to make your hairs stand on their end.

Lesson 3 - Player access is all about give and take

The ability to consistently obtain great footage such as this requires a certain level of player access. One of the reasons college digital teams often have greater player access is due to college athletes realising their ever increasing role as influencers themselves, with the Nebraska Cornhuskers even helping athletes work on this through specific programs.

With the increasingly important trend of athletes becoming media themselves, as my colleague Francois Westcombe wrote about recently, there is greater importance placed upon give and take between college athletes and digital teams, which means college sports teams are often leading the way when it comes to content celebrating athletes. Ohio State, exemplified this trend recently with a series of attention-grabbing videos encouraging fans to follow their star players:

In my own role with the NBA, where we deliver localised content to over 4.5 million fans in seven key markets across Europe, celebrating local players in unique ways is a vital part of our job. Celebrating players’ milestones is always a focus for us, particularly whilst the NBA is on hiatus, so we celebrated the milestone of Pau Gasol’s Rookie of the Year award by repurposing a website GFX actually from 2001-02.

Learning from college teams’ social-first approach, inventive content creation and authentic player focus has become a key part of my own process and consistently provides inspiration for innovative player-led content. And with social media ever increasingly becoming a key part of the sports media landscape at a time when digital engagement is massively up. This pause has allowed many organisations to rethink their social strategy, and they might start with looking at college sports

Byline -> If you are interested in following college sports teams more closely follow this handy Twitter list created by Nic.

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