College Sports Summit Reflects Changing Landscape as Social Media, Data Play Larger Role

The ever changing world of college sports-video production and quickly evolving concepts like the use of data and new platforms like Periscope were all part of the discussion at the first panel session at the 2015 College Sports Summit at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta this week. But, as always, content was king.

From left to right: IMG College's Stewart Marlborough, Learfield Sports' Joe Ferreira, ESPN Digital Media's John Lasker, and College Football Hall of Fame's Mike Bilbow.

From left to right: IMG College’s Stewart Marlborough, Learfield Sports’ Joe Ferreira, ESPN Digital Media’s John Lasker, and College Football Hall of Fame’s Mike Bilbow.

“Content creation should drive the goals of the institution, and each has different goals and strategies,” said Stewart Marlborough, head of digital, IMG College. “Video is one of those components, but our best advice is to take the time to determine what the goal is, as video is a great tool but has to be used in the right way for the right purpose.”

Of course, a major component of that evolution has less to do with technology than with more and more colleges’ and universities’ expanding their content-creation programs. Take, for example, the huge growth in the number of schools producing content for ESPN3.

“In 2012, we launched the college-production initiative, and we have grown from two schools operating out of control rooms to 40 schools that are producing 1,300 events a year from college campuses,” said John Lasker, VP of programming and acquisitions, ESPN Digital Media. “And the interest from our audience is growing, and we are just at the tip of the iceberg.”

As the amount of content expands, there is obviously a need to attract viewers, but, said Marlborough, sports content has an inherent advantage over other media when it comes to driving awareness.

“A normal brand pays millions of dollars to get people to echo a brand in the social world, but your fans just want to do it,” he said. “People want to embrace and say things like ‘I am the game,.’ and your power to get people to embrace that is a huge advantage vs. brands that have consumers.”

The College Sports Summit began the night before, offering a first-hand chance to see the power of social media in action at a reception at the College Football Hall of Fame. When CSS attendees entered the Hall, they came face to face with a wall that featured the helmets of more than 730 schools. Many immediately snapped photos and uploaded them to social-media platforms.

Mike Bilbow, VP, content and production, College Football Hall of Fame, has been hard at work making sure the Hall has the kind of hooks that find a place on social-media platforms. Harking back to his days working for university programs, he cautioned that a proper strategy needs to be developed to achieve social-media success.

“You’re always going to get pressured from certain people to promote premium seating or get recruits,” he said. “But you’re not going to put a premium-seating ad on Snapchat; you are going to put recruiting on Instagram. You have to have little strategies that fit in to make a big strategy as all social-media platforms are different and have different consumers.”

Joe Ferreira, chief content officer, Learfield Sports, added that there are a number of great digital platforms and all of them are battling for eyeballs. “There is tons of content, and, frankly, a lot of it does not get seen.”

That, he added, creates a need to have a platform that can reach fans, for example, from the moment they leave the driveway to drive to the tailgate to the time they get to their seats and then all the way back home again.

“From the great in-venue experience with the connected stadium to the postgame conference, you have to find out how to best serve the fan that wants more and more,” he said. “The struggle is how to get it on the right platform.”

And smaller university and college video departments can find unlikely partners in the largest of media entities. When Monmouth College in New Jersey delivered its signing-day coverage over ESPN3, it found itself up with the likes of Auburn and Alabama in terms of viewers.

“From ESPN’s standpoint, our goal is to serve sports fans, and, with ESPN3, we can serve more of them than before, and our production partners do it at a scale that used to be unimaginable,” said Lasker. “You can see Monmouth and 40 other schools taking advantage of it, and, when you have content from Monmouth adjacent to SportsCenter or FSU, it’s incredible.”

At the College Football Hall of Fame, Bilbow noted that he and his team are challenged with creating social-media content that is within their rights. Unfortunately, that requires actual football content to be limited only to in-venue use.

“It’s incumbent on my group to create stuff we can use outside the building, and our most viral video was when Snoop Dogg went through the whole tour and was in his expensive shoes and suits kicking field goals.”

The Hall of Fame also relies heavily on the use of data. Visitors key in the name of their university or college, associating it with an RFID tag in their visitor’s badge. As they pass through the Hall, video walls and other elements dynamically change to match the university or college reflected in the RFID.

“Data is going to be huge,” said Marlborough, adding that knowing things about attendees at a college sports event can create experiences that are truly appreciated.

“Data will help everyone make better choices about what the fan wants, and you can take every piece of content, see how many views it gets, or the demos and then adjust it every single day.”

But there is still much work to be done to derive the most from the data. Ferreira noted that, for example, most e-commerce, subscription, and donor databases do not talk with each other.

“Things like engagement are not just buzzwords,” he said. “They are about the experience the fan has from drive to driveway and how to create a better experience.”

Advances made with data, advances in social media, and advances in more-efficient production will continue, and there is little doubt that, next year, the conversation at the College Sports Summit will show how the industry is becoming stronger. Periscope, for example, allows users to create a live broadcast stream using nothing more than a smartphone. That is just one advance that is yet to be fully realized, especially for events that are not being produced for distribution.

“A weekday tennis match on Periscope gives exposure, and schools love exposure,” said Bilbow. “As more technologies like Periscope come down, they will change the landscape even more.”

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