Episode 5: Teaming up with Athletics Marketing

Episode 5: Teaming up with Athletics Marketing
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 28:06
 
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Joel and J.S. are joined by Michael Green from Texas A&M University to talk about how University Marketing can better work with Athletics Marketing offices. Come for the good advice, stay for conversations about identity and the role of athletics in building a campus culture.

Episode Transcript

Joel Goodman
We have like six mini-episodes with Michael. [laughs]

Michael Green
Alright.

JG
Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast with your hosts Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel. On this episode, we’re joined by Michael Green, the manager for Emerging and Interactive Media at Texas A&M University. We’re so glad to have you here today.

Jon-Stephen Stansel
Michael, once again, thanks for being with us. We’re glad that you’re able to join us today and we’re going to talk a little bit about athletics and athletics marketing and how University marketing offices work alongside athletics marketing offices — or don’t work alongside athletics marketing offices as is sometimes the case. They’re kind of two separate universes.

You know, one thing I like to say in kind of look at it is that athletics has to promote athletics but as University marketing, we promote the university academics and athletics included and we kind of need to fuse the two together a lot of times but sometimes we’re speaking separate languages.

MG
Totally. Two separate audiences.

J.S.
Exactly. I’ll preface this conversation as I am not a sports person. I don’t know much I don’t follow sports pretty much. My knowledge of athletics ends with the 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team when I was collecting sports cards in my early teens, and then after that, if it’s, I am completely lost. So, you know, even when I post Athletics content, I always run it by a secondary person to say, hey, am I getting all of the phrasings right? Does this fit, does this work? But one thing I really struggled to understand sometimes and keep it up with a designer, Michael, what’s up with athletics graphics, like how many layers do they need?

MG
My gosh, yeah. And, you know, I’m also on the university side, like all cards on the table, I work on the marketing communications side for the university. However, I do live online in sort of the social media sports world. Like if you follow me on Twitter, that’s all I talk about. Those are all my friends on there. Like I live in that world. And so like, I understand both sides in a way, of course, then my wife also works in athletics. And so I get sort of the insight from that side as well. But yeah, sometimes athletics graphics, they are so off base. And I think there are a few reasons. One being they have to pump out so much content. First of all, like when you have to pump out, you know, 20 graphics a day for three different sort of like sports and every coach wants something different. They want their own unique look and you kind of just like, I guess, run out of ideas, you know, and then they’re like, “Well, I mean, if he’s on fire and shooting into space, I guess that’ll work,” you know what I mean? And that’s what you go with.

And so, you know, but also the stakes are both equally higher and lower, you know, with some of their stuff people don’t expect them to be serious, they don’t expect them to be always on brand, but then on our side of things, when Athletics does something, at least here at Texas A&M, people see that as the brand you know? I always say that Marketing Communications for the University is the ship that we’re trying to steer. But then athletics actually has the wheel. Yeah, you know, so like, we can make a brand guide all we want, but if athletics doesn’t follow it, then who’s gonna see it? You know what I mean? Like because 90% of the content that people see from Texas A&M is going to be Athletics content, let’s just be real. If you’re not a student here, probably 100% is going to be Athletics content. So, at some point, you need to admit that Athletics is the front porch.

Have your brand, as we always say, and have that conversation with them because they can very much damage your brand with something off-message or off-brand. But then they can also enhance your campus, they can enhance whatever. There’re some schools that do a great job of that. Like Clemson, you know, in this time, their football accounts are sort of highlighting campus and using the university as sort of a recruiting tool. So yeah, there’s good and bad and this topic we’re talking about it has a lot of opinions on both sides.

JG
And I think it’s also relevant for any level of athletics that you have whether you’re D-I or D-III, or not really competing in any of the major conferences or anything. My alma mater was a D-III school — my undergrad, alma mater was a D-III school — and when I was there working in the Marketing office, we switched our academic colors to our athletic colors because there was so much pressure. Because our teams are actually getting good and were doing cool things. And, you know, we went from green and gold to orange and black, which is also very difficult to pull off without looking like Halloween or just looking, you know, completely anemic in terms of graphic design. But it’s interesting that even at a school where we had maybe 1500 students across, you know, nontraditional, traditional, online, etc, we still were a little bit beholden to what Athletics was doing, and they definitely made some of the decisions for us. And we had to just strike that balance of being able to work with them while also keeping them happy. And I think even selling the central message of, there’s a common goal for the institution, right? It’s not, we’re all fighting against each other. We need to be working towards the same thing. And so how do we collaborate on it in good ways, and how do we make each other better going forward?

MG
I wrote a really big blog on Medium about this maybe a few years ago now and it’s such a fascinating topic to me because like, yeah, we, in some cases, athletics is a completely separate brand, different logo, sometimes even different colors. And then there’s schools like A&M, which we use the same logo, basically, for Athletics and the University. And then more schools are going in that direction than they are the other way. And so then you start getting into this question of, what is a university? You know, are we an Athletic Club, that that teaches class on the side? Or are we a university that our students play sports and of course, the NCAA will say, Oh, well, they’re student-athletes, they’re students first, and it’s just like, I agree. I totally agree. But also, it doesn’t look like that if we’re really honest.

And then, you know, I studied abroad in Australia when I was in college, and like, this doesn’t exist in other places. Intercollegiate sports don’t exist. Everyone sort of goes to college and then they go home and, but then again, you lose all that, that passion, you lose that loyalty. And I think one thing that’s beautiful about this weird paradigm we find ourselves in in the US is like, for some of y’all schools, athletics is the only way the community is involved with the University at all. And so with athletics comes a lot of those good things like loyalty, passion, even community involvement. And so is it worth losing that? I don’t know. Like, it’s such a weird thing that we find ourselves in that there’s no right answer, I guess.

JG
Let’s look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed what we’re doing, you know? Let’s say that this lasts for a year — I hope not but let’s, you know, let’s say it does. What happens, you know, as so many, like you said, Michael, as so many institutions have been kind of shifting more towards the, at least an athletics brand-first kind of mentality, what happens when your athletes can’t play anymore?

Or like, you know, I follow Premier League Soccer. That’s pretty much the only the only sport that I really follow. But we’re watching, you know, what happens in the UK where these top-flight athletes aren’t able to compete against each other and they’re trying to figure out what to do. And I mean, all through Europe — Champions League and everything else — the same thing happens here when, you know when March Madness doesn’t happen, which didn’t. If that continues to go forward, What do we, I mean, what happens? Where are we? Are we stuck because we’ve put all of our eggs in one basket? Are we, you know, are we going to shift to eSports because that also doesn’t seem to be taking off as big as some people thought…

MG
Right. This is, I mean, this is such a fascinating thing to me. I’m so glad you asked because it’s literally all I’m thinking about right now. A, because my wife works in my wife works for softball, okay, so that’s a unique situation. Here, all the things we immediately lose:

Obviously, we lose in-person sports, but what a lot of people aren’t thinking about is the players, right? So they’re also students. So let’s say, you know, I think the NCAA gave them back a year of eligibility. Okay, but they’re graduating. So some of the students, so they need to then go to grad school to play their last year. Well, what if they don’t want to go to grad school? What if grad school is, you know, cost-prohibitive? Alright, so then they’re losing sort of their March Madness moment or whatever. You know, does that affect their future going into the professional leagues?

We don’t know. There’s not an answer to a lot of those questions. And then beyond that, you start thinking, yeah, if this does go into the Fall, for most schools football is your moneymaker. So if football doesn’t happen, then all of the other sports that use that revenue also can’t happen. And so this is one of those things where if football gets delayed or postponed or even canceled, we might see athletics departments fold completely. And so, yeah, This is a dire situation that has ripples into so many things. You know, March Madness is a huge moneymaker for the NCAA. Are they going to be okay? You know, if football folds is the NCAA itself going to fold? We don’t know. So like, this is such a crazy time, you know, in the athletics world, because so much of it is built on this in-person thing.

Now, what do we gain out of it? I mean, maybe we do innovate, you know, maybe there’s ways to experience sports that doesn’t include fans, you know? Like, the NBA and some other leagues were exploring virtual, you know, attendance. So get a VR goggles and choose where you want to sit. And you can experience games in that way. Like, maybe we innovate and the NBA plays, but no fans, but every, you know, players mic’d up and you get more of like an in-person feel. Yeah, I mean, I feel like we can figure this out.

But I think the idea of in-person, fandom is what’s going to get blown up, which maybe that’s good, honestly, because I’ve always — now I’m nerding out, so just stop me if you want — but like, I’ve always said that watching sports at home is so much better than the in-stadium experience already. Because you’ve got a very comfortable chair. It’s free, and your snacks are free, and your bathroom’s right there. Going to the stadium is sometimes the worst experience to experience a sport. So how do you innovate and make the in-stadium experience better? Well, now we can’t do that. So what does that look like? How do we broadcast sports? How do we stream sports? How do we even play sports? I don’t know.

JG
And then keep the players safe [laughs]. How do you keep the players safe? Do you put them in a bubble and just like they just train in a sealed-off camp and like that’s their life forever? Like there’s just … that gets a little dystopian, but…

MG
I mean, all this stuff so fascinating to me, and I don’t have any answers. But I think thinking through the situation is, I don’t know, I think good things can come out of it. We’ll see.

J.S.
Yeah, that brings up a good point, you know, for university marketing offices, you know, with athletics canceled for the foreseeable future. How can we help our athletics departments make it through this time and you know, how can we better tell the stories of our student-athletes? How can we, you know, share what is happening and keep our audiences engaged, when there may not be actual games going on?

MG
And if we’re honest, like especially here at A&M, the excitement of the game coming up this week, or the game we just played, is what people talk about before class starts, you know. It is so much a part of the everyday life of this campus that, like, what will the school be without, sort of that commonality, that thing to talk about? Those sort of like, you know, the quarterback and talking about how good they did or whatever, like, those are conversation pieces and so, yeah, I mean. But here, I’m talking about this and I just said in Australia, none of this exists. So yes, you can totally have the university experience without sports, right? It just kind of sucks that maybe that is at the detriment of those warm fuzzies that people feel when they think about Texas a&m when they think about the Aggies. Like, is that what’s going to be lost? I don’t know. You know, are people going to wear less t-shirts? Maybe they’ll wear more, you know because they’re looking for sort of that identity piece. I don’t know. Like I think it’s just across the board super weird.

JG
I think going back to what you were saying about, you know, the financial side of it, if we’ll be very cold and forget all emotion in this case. [everyone laughs]

You know, we talked about, does the NCAA fold? Do athletics departments fold? But for those institutions, you know, like A&M, like, I mean, like UT Austin, like so many others that are pretty much athletics forward or athletics first in terms of how they’re funded and how they’ve set up their fiscal models — what happens to the academic side, too? Like football stops, basketball stops, everything stops, and then you can no longer fund the faculty that you have, or at least not to the same extent. You can no longer afford your facilities that are going unused anyway, you know? I think there are some pretty deep ramifications to the general side, too. So that you know, in in, say, Australia…

MG
Mm hmm.

JG
They’ve set up their operational models around not having athletics because it’s not something that even came to them. For us, and in a lot of cases, and it’s not every institution, but in a lot of cases, you’re either funded by an endowment, or you’re funded by Athletics. And there’s not a lot of mix of both of those in different places. You know, some institutions were smart and kind of like spread out their responsibility, the fiscal responsibility, in that case, yeah, but it changes the landscape of what higher education is in the US because there really are only those two approaches. Well, there are three approaches. The third is that you only fund yourself with enrollment dollars, and that’s, yeah. Tuition-only is a hard way to operate too, especially these days.

MG
Mm hmm. And of course, none of us are getting, you know, funding from the government. You know, that’s just like, how dare we even think about the government providing education. So, yeah, I, it’s just crazy. And, but then again, maybe I’m too much of an optimist and too much of a futurist. But it’s like, Can digital save this? Can we keep people engaged by just purely online graphics, videos, motion graphics, whatever? And I’ve loved watching a lot of pro teams explore this. And I feel like they’re doing a great job at it, keeping people engaged with the team and keeping them excited and thinking about the sport and watching replays and yeah, maybe even the players start playing like FIFA or something or Madden.

JG
Yeah, that’s been a lot of fun to watch. Just like random players who like, “our team vs your team” and we’re going on and having a London Derby or whatever on FIFA and…

MG
Exactly

JG
yeah, it’s fun.

J.S.
Well, even getting to the human side of it and how the student-athletes are dealing with these sorts of situations. Totally organically we had a baseball player go viral for tweeting, never use his Twitter account ever, but tweets out, “If I have to give up my senior year of sports, so one person can have 10 more years with their grandfather. You know, so be it.” You know, it’s not about me. And just what a powerful statement that was. Of course, you know, it went all around and got media coverage, and we reshared it and, you know, talking about what sports mean as far as a way of character building and how, you know, that statement shows the character of our student-athletes, and reaching out and finding these sorts of stories to share to keep our audiences engaged when, maybe we don’t have games to share. But we still have stories.

MG
And I think there’s already been a trend coming in Athletics, both pro and college is that way more people are following players and they are teams and brands. And so those you know, NBA players have so much more of following engagement, etc, on their tweets about the game than the team. And so I think this is also another opportunity where players can now start taking that story over and doing some stuff like that. Like that’s so much more powerful than if a team could say that, which I don’t even think the team could say that. So yeah, I think this is going to really push the focus on to the athletes, for better or for worse. And then also, like you said, it goes down to what is sports? In the end, it’s entertainment, period. However, it grows into identity. Like, people identify with their fandom. It is their “symbolic self-completion theory.” Sorry, I’m a nerd about, you know, identity and flags and whatnot, I’m sure you know on Twitter but they use these sports teams as part of their personal identity so when that’s lost people do feel a very deep loss in their life. And so it’s entertainment, yeah, we can throw it away and be like, we don’t need it, you know. In a survival aspect, we don’t need it. But in the end, it is part of their lives and they’re very, you know, it hits their personality.

J.S.
So, Michael, I think one thing that a lot of us on the marketing side don’t fully understand sometimes is the struggles of athletic marketing and the pressures they have you mentioned about having to create you know, 20 graphics, “go go go go all at once,” or you know, the amount of turnover that happens in Athletic departments. You get a new coach and a completely new staff come in and some of those circles. So, can you address some of those sorts of struggles and some of those things that maybe the university marketing side may not be aware of totally?

MG
Yeah. And again, I’ve never lived through any of these, but I do know them very, very well. So yeah, like you said, coaches are the biggest thing that a lot of people don’t take into consideration from the university side. For us. We’re always thinking brand first. For athletics, a lot of times you have coaches come to you who do not understand social media whatsoever. They do not understand your brand voice. They come in and say we need to post a graphic for 9/11. And, you know, our first reaction would be, “Do we though?” Like you, “Are you sure?” And but in athletics, a lot of times you cannot ask that question. You must go, okay. And you got to go do it. And that in that kind of, you know, it sucks. And that’s something that some of the best Athletic departments do well, because they are, you know, they look at the digital team as trusted people and they say, “Hey, I have this idea, but I know you’re the expert.” But a lot of times coaches are also working for their own brand, basically. So you know they want to put out what they want to put out. And so they have they want their own look, they want their own verbiage. So you have to navigate that.

And every school is totally different. And then you also have a lot of like students making these graphics, you know, they’re not well versed in the brand. They don’t care. It’s a student, it’s a student worker job for them. And so they’re told to make something, they make it, and then a lot of times Athletic departments are so overwhelmed. They’re just like, go go, push, push, whatever, I don’t care, go, go go, you know what I mean? They don’t quality check. They don’t fact check. Spellcheck. So a lot of times that kind of happens. And it’s…

J.S.
It’s giving me nightmare flashbacks, Michael. I’ve run into some where I’ve had to make a few phone calls here and there saying, oh, but can we review that graphic?

MG
Yeah.

J.S.
Or, for example, you mentioned coaches being so important. I could talk about this now because it’s years and years past and there’s a new coach there now, but at Texas State University, we had a new coach come in, and at his first press conference he said, “We’re gonna party in the endzone.” And an hour later, the fans ran with that as a hashtag, the athletic department ran with it. And we had been spending the past two decades trying to reform the reputation of the university.

MG
Yeah.

J.S.
Because we had a reputation of being a party school. And we were, we were so close to moving past that. And this coach comes in and says the words “party in the end zone,” and suddenly that’s on t-shirts. It’s everywhere. Yeah. And as a marketing office, we have zero control over that.

MG
Mm hmm. And coaches, they need to understand the brand before they even walk in. And I can tell you, I don’t know if I should, but I will. Like whenever we had Buzz Williams come in, our new basketball coach, and even Jimbo Fisher when he was coming in, I was tasked with making sort of like a pamphlet of like, hey, here is a crash course in Aggie terminology, in Aggie traditions, because like if you walk up on that podium to accept this job, and you say, “Hey, everybody,” people are going to hate you. You have to say “howdy.” Like, if you do one thing, you better start that press conference with the word howdy. You know what I mean? So it’s things like that where you have to indoctrinate them in the brand and tell them the do’s and don’ts right off the bat because they have to be part of the program before they even sign the paperwork. So…

JG
They’ve got to make it part of their identity because it’s such an …

MG
Yeah, it’s crazy,

JG
…extreme part of everyone else’s identity in the community, and they’ve, you know, “one of us, one of us.”

J.S.
So, I like what you said about kind of creating a crash course pamphlet. Is there anything else that we can do from a marketing side to kind of help? You know, I think we run into some of the issues with like, you mentioned student workers over on the Athletics side who may not be versed in the brand. Is there anything that we can do to strengthen and help that side and also do that in a way that’s not like we’re encroaching on the territory of Athletics?

MG
Yeah, I think there needs to be a much deeper working relationship between Athletics and University across every university. We’ve been fortunate recently to have a lot more cross-collaboration, at least up on the leadership side of things where we’re setting standards. We are even sharing resources. Because in the end, like, yeah, when we win we would love all the photos you took, you know, but also we’ve been pretty clear with each other in terms of like, okay, big football game. What are you guys going to cover? And what do you want us to cover? And so traditionally, A&M, we focus more on — I’m sorry, TAMU, like the University — has focused more on the fan experience, the traditions, the leaders, the you know, 12th man, all that stuff. And then Athletics has been the in-game content, and everything else. So we’ve kind of like not set turf, but more like hey, we’ll cover this that way you don’t have to, but obviously we can both go either way.

Yeah, just I mean, it’s just got to be deeper communication and deeper understanding. And a lot of times, especially people who work in athletics, who, you know, a lot of them go between universities very frequently. So they don’t really have a loyalty. And they think of athletics as, “I work for a team and there really isn’t a larger umbrella organization.” That is, the university? That doesn’t exist in their minds.

J.S.
Interesting.

MG
And so you kind of just have to remind them that hey, you know, this isn’t like a pro-team where it’s just the team. It is, you know, an academic institution. So when you misspell something, or if you like, use slang or whatever, yeah, you’re making us look bad as a school. You know what I mean? Because we’re supposed to be teaching kids and so when you misspell something, it looks like we as a university is a bad University.

J.S.
That’s fantastic. I’ve never really thought about it that way — of athletics, just separately, thinking about themselves as a team. And I think sometimes that’s where communication between those departments is so pivotal, you know? And making that phone call and having that meeting with some Athletic Marketing people and sitting down at a table and discussing shared goals is important. The struggle, though, there is once you create that connection with someone over there the turnover rate’s so high there’s someone new —

MG
Yep.

J.S.
— very quickly or you even run into, you know, for me on a social media standpoint is we have all of these teams we’ve got the football team basketball team, soccer team, softball, all these have different people working on different people running social media, so maybe the soccer team, the men’s soccer team’s social media is fantastic. But the women’s volleyball team is not getting everybody on board. I don’t know what the solution to that is. But it’s very much like various departments on campus.

MG
Exactly. And there’s actually a renaissance in terms of what’s going on in the Athletics world and how they structure it. So what you’re talking about is probably the way a lot of people are, where the Sports Information Director is the one running the social media. And so there’s a lot of different people. What a lot of bigger schools are going to now, is sort of a centralized model where like digital and social is actually its own office, which is, I mean, doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it is in Athletics because it’s so important. And it cannot be an afterthought.

JG
Yeah.

MG
It cannot be, “Oh, yeah, let’s tweet that too.” You know? It needs to be the first thing you think about. So that is changing. It’s just such a big animal. And so how people manage it is varied across the board. But I think in the future, we’ll start seeing a more centralized digital and social in athletic departments. And then that’ll make that communication a little bit easier. I think.

J.S.
I wish we could start seeing that same digital centralization model and just regular University marketing. I think we all have that struggle.

JG
Michael, thank you so much for being with us and having this super-important conversation about how we can kind of unify our marketing efforts and support athletics in hard times but also you know support our central marketing offices alongside them. So, I appreciate you being here.

MG
Absolutely love hanging out with you guys on Twitter and in now in-person, so, happy to… Oh, in-person meaning like virtually, obviously.

J.S.
Online experiences are real experiences.

MG
Exactly, yeah.

JG
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Thought Feeder podcast. If you’d like to follow us you can join us online @ThoughtFeedPod on Twitter or thoughtfeederpod.com. Special thanks to our guest Michael Green. If you’d like to follow him on Twitter, he is @JMG_III.

Thought Feeder is hosted by Jon-Stephen Stansel and Joel Goodman and edited by Joel Goodman.

Thought Feeder is sponsored by University Insight.

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