BROCHURES, PHONE CALLS, HANDWRITTEN LETTERS? THAT'S SO 2012. THE RECRUITING GAME HAS GONE DIGITAL, MOBILE AND HIGH CONCEPT, AND ANY COACH WHO WANTS TO COMPETE NEEDS A HOT DESIGNER ON HIS ROSTER
THE TEXAS ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT EARNS more than $180 million in revenue annually, has its own cable network and attracts a massive media following. Yet when Tom Herman took over as coach in late November, he determined almost immediately that the Longhorns needed help telling their story.
Within six weeks the football program formed its own creative media department with three full-time employees and a $200,000 budget. What does this team produce? Memes, GIFs, JPEGs, personalized graphics and slick videos. Something as mundane as a Tuesday off-season lifting session might be recorded, edited into a 15-second segment, set to music and presented with all the drama of an overtime fourth-and-goal. The clip is then blasted out both on social media and directly to recruits. "That's where our target audience lives, on their cellphones," Herman says. "We need to do a fantastic job reaching them where they live. Handwritten notes and the old-fashioned way have become passé."
Over the past few decades schools have tried to showcase their superiority through their ever-more-expensive facilities, pressing to outdo one another in stadium capacity, weight-room size and locker-room decor. But as National Signing Day, Feb. 1, approaches, the battle has extended to Instagram stories, motion graphics and Mannequin Challenges, and the programs that land the most studs may very well be the ones who employ the hottest young designers, graphic artists and videographers. Bidding wars aren't just for hot coordinators anymore, they're for Photoshop gurus. The latest arms race in college football has injected its sweat-suit culture with a shot of skinny jeans and baggy flannels. And it happened in, well, a snap.
BACK IN 2013 THE DISJOINTED STATE OF Clemson football's social media accounts told a different kind of story. The equipment staff's Twitter handle had nearly as many followers (12,000) as the program's primary handle (20,000). When Joe Galbraith arrived that year as the school's associate athletic director of communications, he had an epiphany. Behind-the-scenes access, candid pictures and anything to do with uniforms were of as much—if not more—interest than a news blast stating that the team's tight end had been nominated for the John Mackey Award. Fans and recruits wanted inside access, and Clemson controlled that access. "The central tenet of what's it like to be a Clemson Tiger—that drives our creative team," says Galbraith. "What's it like going to media day? Or going to class? Or hanging out in the locker room?"
These days the football program is up to 506,000 Twitter followers, including a 450% jump over the past 13 months. Surely, reaching back-to-back national title games prompted much of the spike. But Galbraith also estimates that the school dedicates more than $160,000 a year in salary to creating content for football. Behind the viral clips of coach Dabo Swinney dancing in the locker room lies an intricate and intense effort orchestrated by a group that's set the industry standard.
That creative media team got its start when Galbraith hired Jonathan Gantt from the Tampa Bay Rays as director of new media three years ago. Other titles that didn't exist in the Danny Ford era emerged soon after—coordinator of football recruiting communications and assistant director of football operations and creative media. Today, the entire creative team, including student volunteers, numbers more than 30.
They've had plenty of inspirational material. Clemson's last-second, 35--31 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship on Jan. 9 showed the breadth of Clemson's social reach. In the 10 days leading up to the final, starting with the Tigers' 31--0 victory over Ohio State in the Peach Bowl, the school garnered 46.7 million impressions on Facebook, 28.2 million on Twitter and 10.1 million on Instagram. In the seven days around the title game Clemson created 242 original posts across social channels.
Besides the outreach to recruits and fans, the program has another benefit: It employs and develops student workers. The school even flew three such students on a charter to the College Football Playoff games. One of them, sophomore Andy Turner, created the program's "25 seconds" video, a compilation of 25 one-second video images from the title game that's been viewed more than half a million times across social media platforms.
Students like Turner have helped turn Clemson's social media team into a talent incubator that's equal to its defensive line room. Social team alumni have recently been hired by the athletic departments at Rutgers, N.C. State and Oregon. (Manchester United called last year to pick Clemson's brain too.) Nearly a dozen high school students have written to express their interest in attending Clemson to join the creative team. "They don't know what's impossible," Gantt says. "They never get tired of having new ideas."
IT'S 6:58 A.M. ON A FRIDAY MORNING in early December; coffee cups let off steam in the defensive staff room at Ohio State. A dozen graduate assistants, recruiting assistants and interns convene at the program's daily creativity meeting. Wisecracks and stifled yawns are punctuated by the sound of smartphone keyboards. The meeting, led by director of player personnel Mark Pantoni, is focused on providing ideas for graphics, short videos and GIFs to send to recruits.
A few weeks later, the Buckeyes will take the field at the Georgia Dome against their nemesis in football and creative—Clemson. In an attempt to catch the Tigers, Ohio State had tried to poach two of Clemson's content creation stars in 2016. It didn't work. "They're good," says Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, "I'm not ashamed to say it. A lot of what we do around here, we studied them."
Meyer understands that to be the best, he had to beat the best. When he interviewed graphic designer Sam Silverman, 26, the coach made his desires clear. "He said, 'There's three things I care about,'" recalls Silverman, who originally hoped to design athletic footwear. "One is recruiting. Two is recruiting. And the third is recruiting."
Down the hall in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Silverman's colleague, 28-year-old Zach Swartz, edits videos on an oversized computer screen as giant black-and-white murals of former coaches Hayes, Paul Brown and Earle Bruce stare at him from the wall. Swartz, the program's director of new and creative media, was hired last April, after Ohio State increased its creative budget by $100,000 in 2015. He is strategically positioned in the thicket of the football building—in what used to be Bruce's emeritus office—so he can capture everything. (He and his cellphone are such staples that defensive end Sam Hubbard nicknamed him Snapchat.) When Swartz interviewed for his job in March 2016, he handed Meyer a binder with his plan to overhaul the Buckeyes' social media and content creation. (At the time, the football program didn't even have its own Twitter account.) Meyer brushed the dossier aside and boiled the interview down to two simple questions: "Are you the best in the country? Can we be the best in the country?"
Swartz's duties go far beyond running social media. He's tasked with recording moments, telling stories and giving recruits behind-the-scenes peeks. "My job isn't making this program look good," he says, "but being the conduit to put it out there." That could mean Instagram pictures or video, Snapchat, Periscope or Facebook. It could be re-creating Spike Lee's famous Mars Blackmon commercial, starring H-back and Brooklyn native Curtis Samuel in Lee's role and offensive lineman Michael Jordan standing in for the Michael Jordan. Instead of "It's gotta be the shoes," the Buckeyes contend, "It's got to be the Shoe," in reference to the nickname of Ohio Stadium.
The content churn is endless. A recent day included creating a graphic that detailed the number of NFL wide receivers Meyer has coached, one photoshopped image that placed a blue-chip recruit's name onto the Heisman Trophy and another with the player's face cropped into a College Football Playoff interview session. Everything the team does is with recruiting in mind. "[Pantoni] wants it to be where a recruit in Florida can experience the entire game-day experience," says Silverman, "without having to come here."
WHEN WESTERN MICHIGAN COACH P.J. Fleck finalized his deal to take over at Minnesota around midnight on Jan. 5, he called Broncos director of player personnel Gerrit Chernoff. Within 90 minutes, Chernoff had packed up his Nissan Altima for the 560-mile predawn drive from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Minneapolis to meet his boss there for the press conference.
Chernoff is Minnesota's general manager, and part of his job is the traditional personnel side—managing the roster, evaluating recruits and arranging visits. There's also what Fleck calls a "creativity side" to the job, which means he's in charge of overseeing content creation and distribution. His middle-of-the-night ride to Minneapolis reflected how desperate the Gophers were to get started, and Fleck's time at Minnesota shows how social media can make a difference.
The school tracked Fleck's first day with paparazzi-like intensity. A camera followed him over 12 hours, from when he stepped aboard the private jet that flew him north until he completed his last interview of the day. An already existing athletic department creative team quickly put together a video, and Minnesota was off. In the following days the school blasted out snaps of Fleck inside TCF Bank Stadium and the $166 million athletic facility that will be completed by the end of 2017, and Chernoff found himself FaceTiming with recruits to show them the new construction and gear in the equipment room. "This is an instant gratification, instant information generation," Fleck says. "In 20 minutes, something is old news."
The effort has paid off. In less than a month since Fleck's hiring Minnesota has received 17 verbal commitments. True, nine of them had been committed to Fleck at Western Michigan, but 12 of the 17 committed to the Gophers sight unseen, in part because of what they'd been shown in images, videos and streams. "The use of content creation," Chernoff says, "makes them able to see it without actually being here."
That ability to reach recruits where they live has left some who flourished in the old system scrambling to keep up. Herman and his staff are painfully aware that Ohio State has received commitments from three of the top 10 players in Texas. The Buckeyes are among the leaders in content creation, allowing a recruit in, say, Houston to watch, feel and experience multiple times every day what it's like to be in Columbus.
Getting back to the top means not simply catching up to what competitors are doing, but taking the content creation to even greater heights. "It's about making a documentary about the process and where we want to go," says Fernando Lovo, the chief of staff for Texas, who recruited candidates for the Longhorns' creative media department. "It's not just publishing 30-second videos to recruits, we needed a cinematic approach."
The social media wars are just beginning.
OHIO STATE HAD TRIED TO POACH TWO OF CLEMSON'S CONTENT CREATION STARS.