BY ALEX KARTMAN | Director | Ball State Sports Link
It’s taken a month to fully wrap my mind around the scope of the work completed for the Final Four. Millions of tweets monitored in the Sports Link offices. Hundreds of highlights clipped for the NCAA Women’s Tournament.
However, my part of the story took me to Phoenix to lead Arizona State students creating content for the official Final Four accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It’s a role I’ve helped with for the past two years, but this was the first year running solo without another Sports Link staffer.
The entire production began in February with development of ideas with Arizona State via conference calls and emails. The event’s scale is hard to grasp months in advance. Even through March planning, the scope only begins to come into focus when we had our first in-person meetings when the NCAA staff of Nate Flannery, Chris Dion and Levida Maxwell landed in Phoenix the week of the Final Four.
The social recap of the event has already been well written by Loni Bryantt, a student of the Walter Cronkite School at ASU. She did a great job analyzing the data of our social media content.
There are many ways to attack the logistics and strategy of large scale social media and sporting events. However, over three years of working with the NCAA Digital staff, there are some clear guidelines to follow to be successful.
Foster Creativity with Students
Every year a new city hosts the Final Four, thus giving local students the opportunity to put their skills to work. This year, I quickly had to adapt to students’ skill sets while sending them out on assignments. I trusted their instructors, who work with them daily, to put them in positions to succeed.
While maybe they didn’t understand they types of content needed in advance, I tried to give them creative room to find compelling content to tell in their own voices, put trust in their skills and was able to help when they had questions. I was able to share my skills in editing and shooting to offer tips and techniques to develop their visions.
Years of working with the NCAA earned me the trust to manage and oversee all content for the channel. I don’t take the responsibility lightly. You have to respect the history of the event and the years of brand development leading to today. Whoever you work for, you must have reverence for the company and brand. They hire you to advance their goals and image. This also meant I had to rewire my brain.
I’m used to documenting games and athletic feats through my work with Sports Link and freelance technical directing. Instead of creating highly produced documentaries or live events, I had to rethink the process. The Final Four is about engaging fans and documenting everything that surrounds the actual sporting events. I pushed students to try to think the same.
My mentality was to create the best available content for specific social platforms. This means Instagram stories needed vertical video; Twitter needed quick turnaround photos of celebrity signings to announce events; Facebook needed something fans couldn’t find elsewhere.
This carried into a fun sponsor engagement with Pizza Hut. I was able to interact with their brand ambassador, the Pizza Hut All-American, at Fan Fest. I worked with them to take over the Final Four Instagram Story to showcase the fun kids could have at Fan Fest. They trusted me to highlight their brand in a fun, positive light by interacting with the festivities.
New Trends = New Opportunities
Every year we’ve tried to incorporate current social trends into the Final Four social media strategy. This year brought the introduction of 360 video for Facebook and LIVE on Facebook and Periscope. Live gave us the opportunity to capture fan emotions in real time. After incorporating live video for the first time this year, I did learn lessons. It is better to entertain fans than overly-inform them.
For our team, the best engagement came from Music Fest broadcasts in which our most charismatic students interacted with fans in line and waiting to enjoy their favorite bands. However, these live shows needed to have a great story and great characters. No matter how great a story is, you have to also pair it with an engaging interview.
Some of the most surprising analytics came from the success of 360 video. With the ability to only post these videos to Facebook, the interaction still was very high with thousands of views for each video. 360 works best when delivering fans into the middle of the action, whether that is front row of a Chainsmokers concert, riding a pedicab through downtown or riding a Ferris wheel over tailgating.
Communication is Key
Managing a team of 25-plus content creators can only be done with clear and direct communication. While I have room to grow in my communication, I try to always inform multiple people on a team of what their goals are. I also tend to repeat to both engrain the task into others and myself. The only way our endeavor could find success is the use of Slack.
Many tools exist for companies to communicate, but for us Slack allowed me to manage individual teams with their specific goals while also gathering ideas and creative content that anyone could develop. Slack also gives me the ability to have an archive of content to go back and evaluate after the event has ended.
The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more – Jonas Salk
I preach this often in Sports Link. Our senior director, Chris Taylor, does too. There’s a reason Sports Link continues to be a national standard for sports media education. We continue to evolve and bring new opportunities while maintaining our strong productions year in and year out.
The same was true for me in Phoenix. After three years of working with the NCAA, I was presented the opportunity to work the National Championship game for the March Madness social team.
Yes, it was amazing to be in University of Phoenix Stadium. Yes, it was unbelievable to witness the atmosphere. However, I was working, and in doing so, I can’t relive any specific moment of action that happened during the game.
My focus was to capture the atmosphere and emotion of the event through Snapchat and Instagram stories. I step back and realize, I contributed a huge amount to the official NCAA March Madness Snapchat and Instagram story. In fact, much of my content also appeared in the official Snapchat Story for the Championship.
I visited every corner of the stadium finding as many interesting things as I could — from big hats, to merchandise to student sections. I tried to put myself in the right places at the right time by capturing team introductions and run-outs with pyrotechnics included. I may have photobombed the CBS broadcast from time to time. When security lets you shoot photos from behind team benches, you don’t question your access.
By happenstance, my favorite piece of content was complete luck. As I returned to the NCAA media area off the end of the court, I passed UNC fans crying and cheering in celebration. I snapped their cheers and reaction.
While posting I saw a UNC player running off the court right to where I was standing. In that moment, he hugged his family in front of me and celebrated with them, all as I captured the moment for social media.
My work was hardly at an end, I still needed to wrap up the Championship posts and also wrap up the Final Four accounts. My final task was editing “One Shining Phoenix.” It is the Final Four’s salute to fans who made the events around town memorable. I first edited one of these pieces at the Final Four in Indianapolis two years ago, and then again last year in Houston.
Upon arriving in Phoenix, this was one of the few pieces of expected content. On the Monday morning of the Championship game, I completed over half of the editing, however I still needed about an hour to put the finishing touches on the piece.
Sitting next to the confetti-strewn court, I worked feverishly to make this the best Final Four recap yet. While it doesn’t have the same cache as watching “One Shining Moment” live on the big screens, it is satisfying to sit back and watch the NCAA staff enjoy the finished work as we watched it on my laptop.
The job has perks. Everyone can tell me how jealous they are of my travels to sporting events.
In this business, keeping your head down and doing the work to high standards can lead to amazing places. During the weekend, I could count on one hand how many minutes of basketball I was able to intently watch.
The rest of the time, I was working to make the event memorable for the fans. It’s why we work in this business. We get into it because we want to share stories and make memories for others. We document touchstones in culture, without experiencing the impact of the moment ourselves, and I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences.