SVG College Q&A: Mark Hodgkin, Senior Director of Digital Media, American Athletic Conference

It’s been a unique few months for everyone involved in the creation of the new American Athletic Conference. The league — formerly known as the Big East — still retains a large portion of the old Big East staff but is working with a largely new roster of member institutions that will only continue to change in the coming years.

Mark Hodgkin

Mark Hodgkin

Those involved at the conference office know it will be a gradual process, but Commissioner Mike Aresco has made clear that he wants the American to be recognized as a power conference.

Mark Hodgkin joined the Big East in September 2009, overseeing the league’s Website and digital video presence. He played a significant role in establishing an elite video and data workflow and is a founding member of the Collegiate Athletics Internet/Digital Association (CAIDA).

SVG sat down with Hodgkin to discuss the thrills and challenges that come with building a conference from the ground up and how video and social media will continue to play a major role in its rise to prominence.

How was your summer? What was it like being a part of such a unique conference launch?
The summer has been nothing if not interesting. Ever since the split of the conference was announced earlier this year, we’ve been dealing with so many issues relating to the rebrand. It’s such a unique situation because not only are we rebranding, [but] there is a new league launching that is taking our name and brand identity. There was a lot of juggling on things like domain names, trademarks, social-media handles.

Our commissioner, Mike Aresco, has been so aggressive in moving the league forward. He has challenged us to evaluate everything we do and constantly push the envelope. Associate Commissioner Tom Odjakjian is working more with digital now in addition to his duties with television and basketball. I think it shows the importance that the leadership of our league has placed on digital. It’s been very exciting.

What was it like for you to build a Website essentially from scratch? What were some of the challenges you encountered?
The most challenging part was that much of our Website [was put together] with a new provider on short notice and without a logo or color scheme. Our partners at SIDEARM Sports did a great job working with us without these obviously crucial elements. We knew we wanted school logos to be prominent since it was a new league and people don’t know who’s in the league. We also figured the color scheme would be red, white, and blue but had no final marks to work with.

We knew we wanted something simple, clean, and easy to navigate and think we did OK with that. We also had to work with the “new” BIG EAST to transfer over existing assets, domains, social-media handles, e-mail addresses for the July 1 rebrand.

What is the current status of the conference’s digital strategy? Is there a digital-network plan in place, and how difficult was it to sort out the conference’s multimedia-rights situation?
I do not think what we had dubbed as our digital network in the past could really be considered a digital network. Everybody seems to have a different definition of a digital network, and no two that I’ve seen are exactly the same. To me, the definition of a digital network is a collection of digital assets from across a conference [whose] value exceeds the sum of its parts. That’s intentionally vague. I think a digital network has to be more than a collection of streamed events.

We are challenged by the fact that most of our high-profile sports already enjoy significant national television exposure. This year, every one of our men’s-basketball conference games will be on national TV. Almost all of our football games are televised. We enjoy tremendous exposure on TV but do not have the traditionally valuable assets to make available on a digital network. This year, we’re shifting from a conference-produced women’s-basketball syndicated Game of the Week package to doing more games for digital. We also have a number of conference championships we will produce digitally. Over the course of the year, we’ll be doing detailed audits of production capabilities at each school to formulate a plan from the future.

A digital network has been endorsed by our membership. We are working with Randy Eccker in a consulting role and a number of internal staff members to investigate potential digital-network structures. We’re being creative. We’re looking beyond the traditional scope to find the next differentiator. It’s been a healthy exercise, and I think we’ll be in a very good position moving forward.

In what ways has the conference office reached out to and connected with the new member institutions to streamline content and interaction across Websites, social media, and digital applications?
When I took this new role, an important area I identified was increasing the communication and collaboration with the membership. We’re a ways from being on-campus — both figuratively and literally. I’m sensitive to the enormous pressures these people feel from their own departments so I want to make sure we’re not overburdening them and just saying, Here, do this for us. I want them to be able to come to us and tell us how we can help them.

We’ve just started a new working group for marketing/external/digital people on campus that gets on a call every month. The group is evolving but is designed to be a two-way communications vehicle with these people who had not always been that connected with the conference office.

Many of our schools don’t have a dedicated digital/social person, so it’s often working with more than one people. We try to interact on social media and Web with our membership. Try to give them shoutouts and retweets. I think it’s important to let them know that we’re promoting them and not trying to simply use them for things we’re working on. Our schools are great, and I especially have enjoyed the energy some of our new members have brought.

How is social media valuable to a new brand like the American’s?
It is very important. It’s a message that we can control entirely. We’re a new brand so we have to be aggressive. We have to be different than we were in the past. We were fortunate that we were able to keep our social followers in the break from the BIG EAST. We obviously deal with natural attrition, but it’s been better than I’d thought, and we’ve added followers since the rebrand. Our Digital Communications Coordinator Jamie Corun is on with us full-time after being an intern last year and is doing a great job with social media. We’ve focused on being more engaging, maybe even informal with our fans. Social has to be fun. I think it’s a way we can separate a little from what we have been in the past.

In what ways do you expect the American to grow technologically throughout its first year? What will be different this time next year?
We’re trying to investigate ways we can help the membership with agreements that provide a service to us and all of our membership. As a conference, we can sometimes provide something at a lower price if we implement it at each of our schools. I think there are some exciting possibilities there.

Also, the audits we do this year will have a big impact on if and how we grow technologically. We’re going to be at each school to see where they’re at from a production standpoint — both human and technical resources.

Coming from where we’ve been the last three years, I never know exactly what will be different, but I’m hoping, a year from now, we will be hitting our stride with a more permanent membership and some exciting developments on what we’re doing digitally.

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