By R.L. Bynum
Social media has become key recruiting tool for college athletics programs
Years ago, social media accounts were just nice to have for college sports information departments, which were more concerned with assisting the media.
It’s still important for SIDs to give sports writers and broadcasters access and extensive information. But social media has become a big part of the job, and is now front and center.
“Our main goal is to work with the media,” said Brett Compton, N.C. State’s assistant athletics communications director, who oversees social media strategy along with Matti Smith, and is also the main media contact for women’s basketball and men’s soccer. “But what is almost as important is telling our own story and getting our own messages out to the fans and the general public. That is something that has made social media absolutely a game-changer. We can directly reach out.”
It’s easy to tell the difference between a random Twitter user’s post and a post from a college athletics Twitter account. College athletics accounts never come anywhere close to the character limit, and they rarely dabble in the same, “reaction GIFs” commonly seen in run-of-the-mill tweets. (editor’s note: please send R.L. your favorite GIF reaction to this story. He loves them!)
— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) February 2, 2019
Unlike many Twitter posts, all the content is visually relevant. Then again, most Twitter users only have a library of random GIFs to use and don’t have the backing of creative services designers, collaborators, photographers and videographers.
Instagram reaches recruits better
Social media is a key tool to provide fans with content. Increasingly, though, the bigger priority is for it to be a recruiting tool — to lure the best high school athletes to their programs and convince fans to buy season tickets.
“I think the main goal is recruiting,” said Dana Reynolds, the director of social and digital media for athletics at North Carolina.
Since Instagram is very popular among young people, it’s a key way for college programs to get their messages out to recruits deciding where they want to play. Since those high school kids sometimes have short attention spans, it’s important to get their attention before they move on to something else.
“We do what we can do to grab somebody’s attention,” said Jess McNamara, Duke’s assistant director of digital media/social media since July 2016, who oversees the day-to-day social media activity and the athletics program’s social strategy. “Obviously, the recruiting piece of that has really become a big part of our social presence for sure.”
The @dukembb Instagram account has more than 946,300 followers (compared to more than 734,300 for @alabamafbl and more than 432,500 for @clemsonfb) and the school hopes to reach a million this year. The @unc_basketball Instagram account is at more than 305,500 followers, with more than 35,100 followers of @packmensbball on Instagram.
Ideal timing of posts can vary by the platform.
“Your Instagram audience is generally up later at night. It’s a younger crowd, so if we have cool graphics and things that we’re going to post on Instagram, we’ll post them at 9 o’clock or after,” said Compton, who added that early evening is usually best for Facebook. “Twitter is mostly throughout the day except for when people arrive at work and when people are commuting. Those are kind of your slower periods. Twitter is pretty consistent throughout the day.”
Kids love to keep up with the latest shoes players are wearing. So, it might not be a big surprise that the most engagement of any @unc_basketball Instagram post in in the last year was a photo of Coach Roy Williams wearing off-white Air Jordan 1s before the Tar Heels’ home win over Virginia Tech last month.
“It got picked up by everybody,” Reynolds said. “That became a viral moment for us. And that gets us in front of different teenagers and sneakerheads and people who listen to music because music and fashion kind of go together.
“It just helps build the brand and makes people more aware of us in the age of social media where the student-athletes really care about that, and care about how visible they are,” she said. “The more visible we are, the more visible we can make them, and it just kind of feeds itself.”
Always ready, trying to make posts stand out
Being timely is important, and that means content generators need to be constantly ready. That’s true for Reynolds, who is in her first season exclusively making all UNC’s men’s basketball account posts and going to every game, home and away.
“It is a lot different,” said Reynolds, in her third season at UNC. “I’m more, I guess, round-the-clock watching everything, not that I wasn’t before. My phone is always in my hand, I’m always looking at it. But putting out every single thing, it’s just more.”
Friday, not long after Julius Peppers announced his retirement from the NFL, UNC posted a split-screen video on UNC’s football and men’s basketball Instagram accounts showing him making plays for UNC in basketball and football.
How do they make posts stand out? There are many do’s and don’ts when you consider that so many posts clog users’ timelines. Reynolds says that statistics and notes are still as important as they were a few years ago.
“We want to be able to pair that with something that makes people stop,” she said. “When it’s a lot of words on the internet, they’re going to scroll right by. So, including video, including graphics and including just beautiful photography, that’s how we get people to stop when they come across UNC basketball posts.”
Sometimes witty words can draw attention, though, as Zach Seidel proved during the first weekend of last season’s NCAA tournament. He runs @UMBCAthletics, and was praised for his tweets during and after No. 16-seed Maryland-Baltimore County’s historic upset of No. 1 Virginia. But the people who enjoyed those tweets might not be the target audience for most college athletics Twitter accounts.
Duke men’s basketball: As dominant on Twitter as on the court
Most sports-specific social-media accounts at the Triangle’s ACC schools are run by that sport’s primary sports-information contact or an assistant, which is the case for every N.C. State sport.
Reynolds with men’s basketball is the only exception at UNC. At Duke, the exceptions are in men’s basketball (David Bradley), women’s basketball (Selena Castillo) and football (McNamara), all of whom are at every game, home and away.
Bradley (at left in below photo with Christian Laettner, Stephen Broome, the creative coordinator for men’s basketball, and Nolan Elingburg, the associate director of Blue Devil Network) came to Duke in 2004 and has handled or managed the men’s basketball social media accounts since their inceptions. Bradley has been the program’s recruiting and communications coordinator and director of basketball operations and now is its creative director.
Castillo handles all the social media accounts for the Blue Devils’ women’s program and is in her second season as the team’s content development specialist.
The sports social media account with a following that towers above all others in the area, and is a behemoth in college sports, is @DukeMBB, a Twitter account with more than 2.2 million followers.
@UNC_Basketball, at nearly 950,900, tops such accounts as @KUHoops (nearly 932,700), @ClemsonFB (more than 918,400), @AlabamaFTBL (more than 882,100) and @KentuckyMBB (more than 765,900), but doesn’t approach Duke’s men’s basketball following.
A quick aside for those who say that our state doesn’t care about hockey: The only Twitter accounts for the three schools with a better following than @NHLCanes’ nearly 369,700 are the men’s basketball accounts at Duke and UNC. Pro football is still king, though: @Panthers tops all of them with more than 3 million followers.
How do you explain @DukeMBB’s popularity?
“They’ve hit the strategy, what everyone’s trying to do on Twitter,” said McNamara, who has been at Duke since August 2015, three months after graduating from Virginia Tech, where she played softball. “They’ve got it down to a T at this point. The amount of people they reach with that account is just incredible. I think it’s just that they found what works and then, obviously, what they do on the court, too. I think the mix of that and the star power that’s there. The Zion-effect, if you will. I think they just kind of found that perfect strategy and they’ve just rolled with it. It’s a beast, honestly.”
Before the 2016-17 season, the name of the popular @DukeBluePlanet account Bradley ran for the team was changed to @DukeMBB and took over the existing account by that name that had been run by Duke Sports Information. Bradley took over @DukeMBB and it reached one million followers shortly after the change.
The previous iteration of @DukeMBB re-emerged as @DukeMBBStats, which Sports Information runs, and has more than 101,200 followers. It is more like @ESPNStatsInfo, posting statistical nuggets and box scores.
“The merger allowed us to streamline some of our internal resources and eliminate some confusion with our fans,” Bradley said via email. “The accounts didn’t literally merge — as much as we decided the DukeBluePlanet account and strategy was better and had more followers.”
There still could be some confusion, though, considering that The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, tweets about men’s hoops from the @dukebasketball account. It’s smart branding considering it has 141,100 followers compared to nearly 14,600 for @DukeChronicle.
“We aren’t usually the ones to step outside of the box or to do a new idea,” McNamara said. “But the growth that we’ve made and the resources we’ve put into it has been pretty incredible. Obviously, having our men’s basketball program be at the top level when it comes to social media across the board, it’s pretty cool to have that example to look up to with an art department.”
@DukeMBB posts are a mix of videos, photos, GIFs and graphics.
While Duke loves to have the follower counts go so high, that’s not the most important metric.
“I think that has changed,” she said. “Throughout the years, I think at first when we were all trying to figure out how exactly to handle this beast, it was followers just because it was an easy number to look at. Now, I think for us, it’s more about the interaction and engagement of the account. Obviously, the more followers, the better.”
Duke measures interactions and engagement using CrowdTangle.
Tar Heels have strong Twitter following across multiple sports
There are main athletics accounts at all schools on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. UNC and Duke also have Snapchat accounts.
Of the general athletics Twitter accounts, UNC’s @GoHeels (more than 270,300) has the most followers (@PackAthletics has nearly 84,500 and @DukeATHLETICS has more than 38,700). @goheels, at nearly 142,900, also has more followers on Instagram, but @dukeathletics (more than 81,600) tops @packathletics (nearly 30,000) on that platform.
For sports all three schools field, UNC has the most followers on Twitter for nine accounts (football, women’s basketball, baseball, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, track and field, men’s tennis, women’s tennis and soccer), N.C. State has the most in three sports (swimming and diving, wrestling and men’s golf) and Duke leads in two (men’s basketball and women’s golf).
Another pro sports aside: the @DurhamBulls account (nearly 70,000) has more followers than any of the schools’ baseball accounts (the highest total is @DiamondHeels at more than 61,700) and the @CarolinaMudcats (more than 14,100) account has fewer (the fewest for an area ACC college baseball accounts is @DukeBASE at more than 20,800).
Why does UNC consistently have the most followers in the most sports?
“We do a good job of creating content and showing what it’s like to be on those teams, so I think that’s another thing that helps grow all of those,” said Reynolds, who said UNC’s brand is a big asset. “You can’t not recognize it. You don’t have to know anything about sports. You don’t have to know a lick about anything. But you recognize the color and you recognize that logo. You’ve seen somebody wear that jersey, you know who Michael Jordan is.”
She says that keeping UNC’s branding consistent through all accounts is important.
“That’s one of the best things we do, is our branding is on point all the time,” she said. “Second is we’re so successful in all of those sports. With the success, you’re on TV, you’re on SportsCenter, people are talking about it. The NCAA accounts are talking about you. That helps feed our followship and our recognition.”
After nearly four years as the social media coordinator at Vanderbilt, her undergraduate alma mater, Reynolds joined Carolina Athletics in November 2016.
Before she began work with the men’s basketball accounts, multiple people did the posting, “which was great for how Twitter and social media was even just a couple of years ago,” Reynolds said. “But, as we saw our fandom and other teams, it all needs to sound like it’s coming from the same person.”
There is a lot of work behind each post on Twitter and Instagram, including sifting through the extensive information from Steve Kirshner and Matt Bowers of UNC Athletic Communications.
“I’m the person who curates all of the information from Steve and Matt, from our video crew, from our graphic designer, from our photographer, so that it’s really succinct and clean and consistent,” Reynolds said. “But also so that it’s more content-heavy. We were doing a lot of wordy tweets in the past and we just wanted to lead with the content that we were creating and capturing.”
Reynolds’ arrival allowed others in the Athletics department to concentrate on other duties.
“I think we got more hands on deck. We got a little more comfortable with our workflow and we were able to create more quality content more consistently,” she said. “Bringing me on took a lot of weight off of some other people who were creating content and posting. So, now they can just focus on capturing and creating and I can work on curating and releasing that content.”
Coach Roy Williams hasn’t hidden the fact that he knows little about Twitter and has no intention of tweeting. But his voice still ends up on social media.
“He has people around him who know what he wants and what level he wants things to be done at and he wants the program to be portrayed as, but they also get what I’m doing,” Reynolds said. “His voice isn’t lost in any of this. He might not be saying it to me but there are people who are conveying his message to the creative group so that we know where to push pause or maybe not do this or do that … how we want to show the program.”
Reynolds oversees all UNC Athletics social media accounts to make sure they are strategically sound and on brand.
“When we get to the postseason, that’s when I’ll step in for a lot of teams and help streamline everything, make sure all of their needs are met,” she said. “On the front end, helping with preseason photoshoots and video shoots so we get a lot of content that we can use throughout the season. If we don’t get that action shot we needed, we have some great imagery from before the season even started.”
She and her interns run @GoHeels and the UNC Athletics Facebook account.
Duke likes to try different approaches
At Duke, McNamara posts to the main Duke Athletics accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in addition to the football accounts.
She says that a team behind her keeps the content fresh by trying different things.
“I think our video department does a really good job with that,” she said. “We’ve also had the initiative of pod meetings, and it’s where we get all the creative minds in one room for each sport and we throw ideas out there and brainstorm. What’s coming up? That kind of thing. I think those have really helped us kind of stay ahead of the game.”
One video for the football account, a spoof on “The Bachelor,” created a lot of buzz.
Football in Paradise
Coming this Fall 🔵😈🏈 pic.twitter.com/5s5wfUmDXA
— Duke Football (@DukeFOOTBALL) August 13, 2018
“It generated a lot of impressions and reached a ton of people,” she said. “We had a bunch of people from the show actually reaching out and sharing it and that’s really cool. That’s probably one of my favorite projects to date. Just doing the silly, funny stuff and also giving fans and recruits kind of a different look, a different perspective. Obviously, any way you can kind of give them that all access is always pretty huge, for us that is.”
McNamara says that one of the social media goals at Duke is to tell the story of the athletes away from the court or the field.
“We really try to focus on getting their personalities out there,” she said. “A lot of Duke student-athletes, they keep very busy whether it’s charity or community work and then also just the academics as well, so that’s something that we really try to highlight. We’re very lucky, too. We’re lucky that we can trust student-athletes and hand over an account and say, hey, take it over for the day. We kind of give that first-person perspective, which is really cool and has done very well for us.”
Two oversee Wolfpack’s social-media efforts
At N.C. State, Compton and Smith (in below photo), a UNC graduate, handle the main Athletics accounts and work with the marketing department on promotions and giveaways. Smith runs the accounts and is the primary media contact for cross country, swimming and diving and men’s tennis.
“We work with our Creative Services team for video content and graphics,” Compton said. “The two of us are either creating or receiving the content and we’re deciding what’s the wording, when does it go out.”
One of its videos posted on Facebook during Military Appreciation Day last season showed a veteran getting a special surprise.
We had a special surprise for an American hero at the men's basketball Military Appreciation game today in partnership with Operation: Coming Home.
Posted by NC State Athletics on Saturday, February 3, 2018
“We do our best to make sure we are present to capture special moments that may or may not relate directly to any of our 23 athletic teams, but contain a certain special human element,” Compton said. “We always love a feel-good story, and when we can share those types of moments with our fanbase, it really strikes a chord with us and them.”
Compton first dealt with social media as an intern at Ohio University during the 2008–09 school year while he was an undergraduate there.
“Since then, I’ve been following that and trying to stay ahead of the curve on what’s exciting, what’s cool, what fans want to see, what engages people with N.C. State athletics, what gets people excited about our teams,” said Compton, who works under a recently created Creative Services unit. “It’s pretty fun. It’s hard to keep track of everything going on at once, but that’s what makes it exciting.”
Schools help athletes with social-media content
A middle-of-the-night post from a Miami club in 2010 from UNC player Marvin Austin helped ignite an NCAA investigation. So, obviously damage can be done by athletes on Twitter.
None of the schools have dealt with anything quite like that since then, though. At UNC, the Student-Athlete Development department advises the players on do’s and don’ts. The other schools also have sessions advising athletes about using social media.
“I talk to the guys all the time,” Reynolds said. “All their stuff is fine. I’ve never really had a problem with anything that they’ve posted.”
“It’s so easy,” McNamara said. “It’s literally a click of a button for them. Any way we can get our student-athletes content, they are more than happy to use it. And it also helps us as well.”
Reynolds said the system uploads videos and photos to individual galleries, and players are tagged and get texts alerting them to when content that includes them is available.
“They are able to use and build their brand and our brand using the content that we get of them,” said Reynolds, singling out the large followings of Nassir Little and Seventh Woods. “It helps us give them the stuff, but also keeps them on brand. It helps build our brand and it helps them really recruit as well. It turns them into recruiters.”
McClatchy offers early retirement to some
In an email message sent Friday, CEO Craig Forman offered early-retirement buyouts to about 450 McClatchy Company employees, including a good number at The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.
That group was expected to include all employees who have been with the company at least 10 years and are at least 55 years old. The only members of the sports staff who fall into that category and likely got offers are Sports Editor Steve Ruinsky and Carolina Hurricanes beat writer Chip Alexander.
According to Forman’s email, employees offered “voluntary early retirement” have until Feb. 19 to decide if they want to participate. Those employees are being given the chance be part of webinars and consult with human resources (which McClatchy calls the People team) to help them decide if the offer would be right for them.
Employees were told that the early retirement offer is a one-time opportunity and to not expect another such program.
The news prompted Jane Elizabeth, the managing editor of The N&O and The Herald-Sun, to write an interesting Twitter thread. It conveyed that despite difficult times and the “haters,” the newsroom is determined to persevere and stay committed to good journalism.
This week we learned that a good portion of our @newsobserver @TheHerald_Sun staff – and every other McClatchy newsroom – will be offered buyouts. Twitter tweeted about our “layoffs” & downfall of the media industry. Haters did their hating. Here’s what we did:
— Jane Elizabeth (@JaneEliz) February 2, 2019
Popular NASCAR site shut down
For more than 22 years, Jayski.com was the place many NASCAR fans could count on for insights and breaking news about stock-car racing. That site, which ESPN acquired in 2007, shut down late last month. Jay Adamczyk started the site in August 1996, reporting on NASCAR news, TV ratings, rumors, statistics and frequently posting photos of cars.
We didn't get to scoop our own news! 🙂 Thanks for 22+ great years. Today is the final day for https://t.co/N4QJEkXxpT. We appreciate all your support. It's been an honor to work for ESPN. We aren't sure what's next for us (Jay, Scott –@SLPAGE and, Amanda) but stay tuned.
— Jayski (@jayski) January 28, 2019
It’s another blow to a sport that continues to trend in the wrong direction.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
Way before Todd Gurley played in the Super Bowl, he got his start in football at perennial state power Tarboro High School. On si.com, Jonathan Jones wrote about Gurley’s humble upbringing and how he thrived in the Vikings’ run-oriented T offense that is full of misdirection.
In announcing his retirement in The Players Tribune, Peppers reflects on his career and a key decision he made while at UNC: Asking the coaches to move him from tight end to the defensive line.
In The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press, Norm Wood wrote about Virginia’s Jay Huff, who grew up in Durham as a Duke fan but is starting to make an impact for the Cavaliers.
Which one is which is up for debate. But Duke freshman stars Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are described by Coach Mike Krzyzewski as “Frick and Frack” because they goof around so often. They’ve also developed quite a bit of chemistry on and off the court, as Dana O’Neil writes in The Athletic.
Fans get to enjoy Zion Williamson’s game but don’t have the access to enjoy the show he puts on before the media after most games. News & Observer and Herald-Sun columnist Luke DeCock provided some insights on that and the star’s personality in general.
In The Athletic, Joseph Person wrote about a painful play in Carolina Panthers history: the Super Bowl pass to Jerricho Cotchery that wasn’t ruled a catch.
In The N&O and Herald-Sun, Joe Giglio wrote about one reason that an undersized N.C. State team still can get inside production: DJ Funderburk.