Creative Video: The New Power Five Arms Race In College Football

Following Clemson football’s 24-22 marquee home win against Notre Dame on Oct. 3, 2015, head football coach Dabo Swinney promised to deliver a Whip/Nae Nae rendition in the team’s post-game locker room celebrations. As you might remember, the 48-year-old former real estate developer lived up to his remark, with Matt Huggins — then an undergraduate Tiger videographer — having a front row seat to capture the display on Vine, the now non-existent six-second social platform.

Within a week, the video had accumulated six million loops and is currently around 14.5 million. There were about 30 Clemson football Vines created on that particular game day, but this one made its way onto SportsCenter. Arguably more important, though, it highlighted what a social staff could accomplish through exclusive access, being aware of the moment and capitalizing on it.

Creative video was born, in a way, whether or not Clemson or Swinney recognized it at the time. Even two years ago, snappy graphic design, bite-sized Infographics and animated GIFs were still at the forefront of college athletics departments’ digital strategy.

Now, the creative emphasis and overall resources have shifted as video becomes a central focus for Power Five football programs. While the facilities arms race in college athletics remains — and likely receives more national attention — another less-documented movement isn’t happening on the gridiron or in shiny new buildings. It’s occurring on the keyboard and behind the camera, in many cases with 20-year-old undergraduate sports management, film and creative art students playing integral roles that go unnoticed.

Cinematic storytelling, highlight mix-tapes and sizzling hype videos overlaid with some creative copy and even the occasional emoji currently reign supreme at Power Five schools as we head into 2018.

If social and digital media are, broadly speaking, the front door to universities and athletic programs, then video could be the fancy dining room off the foyer that captivates one’s attention … and keeps it.

The 2.0 digital revolution in college athletics has continued to evolve, with the likes of Clemson, Michigan, South Carolina and Nebraska being just a handful of the schools leading the creative video arms race, one 30-second clip at a time.

“It’s always going to be important to tell your brand’s story well, your product’s story well. Right now, there’s no better way, in terms of return, than video. That’s where it’s at,” said Jonathan Gantt, Director of New and Creative Media at Clemson Athletics.

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Video is an area where Kelly Mosier and Nebraska Athletics have been able to “flex their creative muscles,” saying that the storytelling vehicle is “part art, part science, a little bit of thought and strategizing.”

Mosier added: “It’s a little bit of you trying to make sure you’re artistically telling a cool story as well.”

The Assistant Athletic Director of Creative and Emerging Media explained that when he moved from the television and production department to the digital staff in 2011, the group was more focused on streaming events and producing video content exclusively for the athletics website. It’s a sign of the times for where the creative journey began for these Division I programs and how far it’s come. Nebraska is no different.

According to Mosier, the use of social media became more heavily integrated three or four years ago. The need and desire to constantly innovate has led programs such as the Cornhuskers to place video at the top of the digital pyramid. As Moser explained his rationale to Sports Business Chronicle, how he labels video in particular also includes animations and GIFs, comprising well over half — if not closer to 75 percent — of all social content for the athletics department.

“There’s been an explosion in video,” Mosier said.

What was once strictly highlights, six-second warmups on Vine and camera interviews has transitioned more to movie-style filming and artistic storytelling, regardless of duration.

Mosier said there’s two competing thoughts with video length, both of which are correct depending where you place an emphasis. One is that attention spans are short, so everything must be cut at eight seconds, while on the other end of the spectrum, longer clips may, in fact, be more engaging content.

I pointed out to Mosier how the pinned Tweet for the Nebraska football Twitter account (see below) is 50 seconds long, first to comment on how video appears to be a priority for the department but also, to see what’s the decision-making process for length.

Though the 50-second video, which has nearly 600,000 views, isn’t what Mosier would call a long-form piece, he did say that it’s longer than most of the athletics department’s videos.

He further explained that video length is naturally considered and weighed “to a degree,” but it’s not over-analyzed. Traditional social marketing, such as game day promotion, remains relatively short and concise so it can be shared across different platforms. Odds are, Cornhusker fans won’t spend too much time viewing it.

For branding purposes, whether it’s for the athletics department, a specific sport or coach, the length formula, as Mosier said, may turn on a handful of factors: when is it being shared? how engaging do I think it will be? Am I sharing it before or after a big game? Also, generally speaking, how much do I think people will like the video? Like Mosier remarked earlier, part art, part science, and sometimes part intuition.

When it comes to the main social channels, he said that video content isn’t specifically created for any particular channel or even for social as a whole. For example, a football recruiting video that is intended for other purposes may also get repurposed on Twitter or YouTube.

Said Mosier: “Some of it’s square peg in a round hole.”

“Our opinion is that if the content is good, it works on any platform,” he added, saying that oftentimes there’s minor tweaks depending on the channel.

He cited Instagram Stories, which launched in August 2016, as one specific social feature that has recently caught his department’s attention, telling Sports Business Chronicle that “it’s changed how we view the platform.”

In mid-October, when Bill Moos was hired to be the school’s new athletic director, Mosier said he and his staff crafted a ‘Story’ for the “linear storytelling platform,” explaining that you’re able to break down one idea into a series of multiple components or thoughts. In addition, game day has traditionally served as a way to leverage the functionality of ‘Stories’, which has included pre-produced video packages and ‘live’ in the moment or huddle-type videos to even more polished content.

Though he didn’t close specific numbers, Mosier said that “almost overnight,” the athletics department was soon attracting the same number of video views on Instagram Stories compared to Snapchat Stories.

🔒 in. ✊🔴🏈 #GBR

A post shared by Nebraska Football (@huskerfbnation) on

“It’s probably one of my favorite platforms,” Mosier said of Instagram, alluding to the notion that if he could concentrate his efforts on one platform, it would be Instagram.

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Is there a creative video arms race in college athletics?

Brian Wagner, the Digital Strategy and Creative Lead for Michigan Athletics, likens it much to the NBA or NFL, where he says “we’re competing against other schools for recruiting and for fans. We feel with our content we can influence them.” He added that while he believes there’s some element of a creative and social arms race to be the best online, that doesn’t necessarily mean Michigan lives in a vacuum.

“It’s not like it’s completely us in this creative digital world,” he said. “We’re happy to share insights but bottom line, Michigan, (Multimedia Coordinator Ty Rogers), I and everyone else here, we’re trying to be the leaders and best, number one, in this world.”

Wagner joined Michigan in July 2015 when the athletics department — in some aspects — was built more for television and traditional forms of content, some of which still exist today such as a university-owned 30-minute weekly football television show. There were the usual long-form five or six-minute highlight clips posted to the athletic website and student-athlete video interviews, which also lived somewhere online.

As the calendar year flipped and it turned 2016, Wagner could sense a change in the tide at Michigan. Whether it was clipping a 20-second highlight of a soccer goal, running out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel alongside players and broadcasting it via Facebook Live or grabbing inside-the-huddle video, the way content was captured and produced was changing. Put simply, the mobile-first world had forced everyone’s hand, including Michigan’s, to think differently about how they connected the athletic experience with their audience.

“I’ve really seen a rise in the last 18 to 24 months, this rise of creative multimedia storytelling that is more about touching recruits. It’s built for your phone and social,” added Wagner.

Though he didn’t disclose specific numbers, Wagner explained that when he dove further into the video analytics earlier this year, he found that the storytelling vehicle was some of the department’s most engaging content.

The digital strategist admitted that he and his staff, which now includes full-time Videographer and Multimedia Coordinator Ty Rogers, are still building out their creative video services. It’s a work-in-progress for many, even for Power Five schools.

Rogers came aboard this past Spring, right around the time the football program made a week-long trip to Rome. There, the former Duke men’s basketball graphic designer and videographer documented everything from practice sessions and workouts to sightseeing trips and even a paintball session with some players and Coach Harbaugh.

Following the overseas excursion, Rogers returned to Ann Arbor where he further embedded himself with football, which is the only sport he’s currently focused on, and familiarized himself more with the coaching staff and players. His day-to-day became filled with capturing workout videos, practice footage, weight lifting and eventually Fall Camp, all while producing deliverables as short as six seconds to longer-form content upwards of two minutes.

During his first football season, Rogers saw the workload increase to a level where he quickly realized he’d need to prioritize what was necessary weekly content versus projects he could put on the back burner. An internal Monday morning content meeting dictates the week’s football content agenda.

Internal recruiting videos along with a longer-form Friday video for the players, which was mandated by Coach Harbaugh, were at the forefront in 2017 for Rogers.

He explained that the latter piece of content typically takes four to six days to produce and is normally four to six minutes in length. It’s a creative and engaging way for Harbaugh and the coaching staff to relay that week’s messaging to the players, top-level points about the opponent and other relevant information.

Roughly 36 hours following each regular season games, Rogers also produces a 60 to 120-second mini-movie, highlighting what it’s like to be a member of the Michigan football program. According to both Rogers and Wagner, the inside access — even for those creative and video staffers — has reached a new level.

“Fans and recruits are able to see who these guys are, what it’s like to be part of the Michigan Wolverines football team, and you can convey so much more information via that video platform than just a graphic or photo,” Wagner said.

That inside video material can also be seen in #TheVictors, a new social video series led by Rogers. While the content doesn’t necessarily meet the ‘must have’ priority list with everything else on Rogers’ plate, the videos have registered with the Michigan faithful. The cinematic video style, complete with a narrated story, is a creative strategy being deployed by others as well.

As Rogers said, through dynamic video content — which includes close-up shots, historical program references and trendy music — Michigan can further develop an emotional connection between fan and brand.

Rogers said that when he’s on assignment for a particular game, he doesn’t wake up thinking, ‘OK, what platforms am I shooting for today?’ At the heart of his role, he’s trying to bring “special moments” to the viewer that he or she wouldn’t have seen on television, which can then again elicit some type of emotional reaction. That could be beauty shots of fans, a linebacker calling out a play, close-ups of players celebrating a win or the game day atmosphere three hours before kickoff.

“You can plan only so much and some things change, something you wouldn’t have expected happened but was really cool and you captured it,” he said. “It comes out of left field, and you can share it on social later. I don’t plan for the platform. How many special moments can I capture during the day?”

*****

The minute Jonathan Gantt touched down in Clemson, South Carolina four years ago, the digital transformation for the athletics department — which was conceptualized in large part by Athletic Director Dan Radakovich — started to take root.

The question, what is it like to be a Clemson Tiger?, became the athletics department’s North Star for how it positioned, created and packaged social content.

“How do you share the Clemson experience, which we think is very, very special, how do you share that in a way that gets someone excited about coming to visit Clemson?” Gantt said to Sports Business Chronicle earlier this Fall. “Someone who’s been here hundreds of times or someone who has never been here, how can you create content that gets someone to say, ‘Man, I got to go visit that place. That looks awesome, I want to be part of that’.”

According to Gantt, in late 2013 and into 2014, graphic design was arguably the “biggest skill set needed at that time.” Still, as the digital strategy unfolded and the social platforms instituted new creative elements, Gantt hired a full-time videographer and now Assistant Director of New and Creative Media Nik Conklin. He was charged with producing feature video and even more focused, social and digital video.

“We went into that job search looking to hire the best filmmaker possible,” Gantt said. “We didn’t even care if they didn’t know a thing about sports. We almost preferred them to not know anything about sports. … Somehow we got the jackpot with Nick, who’s an excellent filmmaker.”

Added Gantt: “We were one of the first to have someone really focused that way, where creating content formatted specifically for the social media experience. … I really think (Nick) revolutionized college athletics with the video content he created.”

He said it was a conscious decision to invest and focus on quality social video content, which best illustrated and answered the North Star question. While some may have viewed the six-second Vine (R.I.P.) platform as too restrictive on length, Gantt and Conklin both saw the social channel as a “great guidebook for how to create really good social video.”

“Micro-storytelling” that fit the social media user experience, as Gantt described, was the focal point.

“Video was what helped Clemson stand out. It’s what got Clemson a lot of attention,” he added.

The content itself may not have been that much different, but the way it was produced and packaged had a different overall look and feel to it. One Vine from that Oct. 3, 2015 home matchup against Notre Dame is, on its face, a simple highlight. Yet, the way Clemson incorporated slow-motion elements along with trendy music and emojis, signaled a digital evolution.

With Vine no longer in existence, Clemson has naturally gravitated toward the other major social platforms. Regardless of channel, the core directive has remained the same: to tell the best story possible in the most concise package possible.

“That’s what we think is the best formula for engaging content on social media,” Gantt said.

He echoed the other digital strategists and creatives interviewed for this story when it comes to evaluating length. Yes, monitoring completion rates and tracking a video’s initial three seconds to see where viewers drop off are both part of the equation. Yet, there’s no science without the art, acting on some gut instincts and trusting the creative team to tell the best brand story.

“I’m not going to sit here and pretend we have our arms fully wrapped around the analytics side of things, and they play a massive role in our creative decision-making,” acknowledged Gantt.

He said that more telling key performance indicators for the football program and athletics as a whole include feedback received from student-athletes, coaches and targeted recruits.

“How did the people we’re servicing rate that experience?” Gantt said of how he calculates video views, adding that “we don’t try and get caught up in the pure numbers.”

Video — both long and shot-form — across social has run the gamut from a few seconds to 12-plus minutes. YouTube sensation Casey Neistat, who has over 8.5 million followers, is just one of the creative video inspirations for the athletics department, according to Gantt. To start the 2017 season, the department rebooted its feature look at the student-athlete experience for football, dubbed ‘New Team, Same Dream’.

Clemson’s ‘The Vlog’ series, which is purposefully long for social, has become a mainstay production throughout the past five months and has lived on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, with some longer elements for the latter two platforms.

In addition, since joining the department, Conklin has been one of the driving creative forces. He led production for the below five-minute video through capturing roughly 400 one-second close-up and wide shots, a tactic that Gantt said other programs have mimicked over the past 18 months.

As the creative blueprint for football has become more refined, Gantt said he and the athletics staff will work to further replicate what they’re created for the other 17 sports. It’s a common next stop among the four schools Sports Business Chronicle interviewed for this story: get football right, and slowly budget and strategize accordingly for other programs.

Gantt was quick to state that ultimately without the top-down buy-in and diretion, starting with Radakovich, none of the digital success — including video — would have been possible.

“We’ve maximized our opportunity, and it’s a testament to the senior leadership here and being early adopters in content and social media,” he said.

*****

“Whatever access you need, you got it.”

It’s a statement that South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp communicated this past Spring with Justin King, the Gamecocks’ Associate Athletics Director for New and Creative Media. Following the basketball program’s NCAA run in March, King officially launched the new group within the athletics department.

Before he first arrived on campus in February, there was a concerted video push, but the focus skewed more toward coaches shows and traditional journalistic coverage of football. The emphasis on creating content specifically for recruiting purposes was non-existent. With King at the helm and buy-in from Muschamp, among others, to grant the necessary level of access, the video direction quickly changed.

“Our mission is to help our coaches recruit the top student-athletes to the University of South Carolina,” King said of his staff, which at its core is a “content team” that also focuses on graphic design, social media, photography and other creative elements.

He added: “Whatever we’re producing, whatever we’re creating is based around what the coaches need. We don’t really sit on an island and make stuff whenever we feel like it and push it out there. As we’ve continued to work with the coaches, we’ve become more in tune about what they want and need.”

That means almost daily back-and-forth text exchanges with Muschamp, recruiting coordinators and other football operations staffers to receive content direction and creative feedback on what’s being produced for social. Video is no longer a luxury to have; it’s a ‘must’.

“I’d be willing to venture every Power Five school is creating video in some way,” King said.

For example, 12 months ago a simple uniform reveal might include still images on Twitter or Instagram. The weekly ‘Battle Armor’ content has been injected with more sizzle. King’s staff produced the below video complete with overlaid music by DJ Skrillex and rapper Rick Ross.

Battle armor 🔥🤙

A post shared by Gamecock Football (@gamecockfb) on

Or, given the buzz surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi this Fall, how about a jersey reveal that includes not only audio from the movie but additional creative Star Wars elements?

Battle armor 🔥🤙

A post shared by Gamecock Football (@gamecockfb) on

At South Carolina, King said “there’s a real heavy emphasis on video now.” Not only are the distribution mechanisms and social channels easier to use, more accessible and also varying in features, but there are fewer length limitations. Additionally, the rise in talent level has contributed to video gaining momentum in collegiate circles, he said.

The tools to create videos have become much more affordable as well. If a 10th grader in high school has a smartphone and if he or she is interested in becoming adept at video production, that individual can then can purchase a stabilizer and the Adobe Creative Cloud for fairly cheap.

King explained that he currently has five full-time video producers across athletics who can create a video from start to finish along with a handful of undergraduate students assisting as well. At the time of this interview, he was still looking for a sixth producer. While his staff directly focuses on content creation, one of King’s main responsibilities is determining distribution strategy for video and social in general.

For Early National Signing Day 2018, South Carolina produced for Twitter a series of seven-second videos illustrating the early Gamecock signees, with the creative also including an embedded high school highlight snippet.

When asked about leveraging 360-video or ‘going live’ — parts of the creative video process that grabbed steam in 2016, largely because the main social channels were pushing their own ‘live’ features — King said there has to be a why for every decision.

Leveraging Periscope or Facebook Live for the football team’s stadium arrival might make sense if there’s a large number of recruits who couldn’t attend the game in person. Yet, the digital staff still wanted to provide a small glimpse into what Columbia, South Carolina is like on game day. Or ‘going live’ on Instagram could fit into the digital strategy around a compelling rivalry matchup or bowl game.

Still, for the most part, “going live is not an emphasis right now,” according to King.

As it pertains to the creative video arms race among Power Five schools, he explained that there’s not really a competition when it comes to video views or who has the most followers. What is important, he reiterated, is assisting the coaching in recruiting student-athletes to South Carolina.

“Just like anywhere else, there’s some ego involved,” King said. “Everyone wants their content seen.”

In a way, there’s an arms race for whose content cuts through the clutter and stands out above the rest, with the notion that if it’s engaging, elicits emotion and connects with a student-athlete, then a digital strategist has “won.” According to King, if a video received fewer than 20 views and took 10 hours to make, obviously that’s difficult to stomach. But, if one of those views is a top 100 football recruit who ends up committing to South Carolina, in part because of that video, then it’s time well spent.

Like the other three schools, viewership is important but it’s not the main metric for how content is created and distributed. More than anything else, one of the main questions that King and his digital staff is consistently trying to answer is, does this piece of video content have an emotional impact on the target audience?

“Maybe there was a time when it was a bonus before to have video content. Now, it’s a necessity,” King said. “You having it doesn’t mean you’re ahead of the game. You having it means you’re within the pack. What will put you ahead of the pack now is what you’re actually creating.”

About Mark J. Burns

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