While traditional media access to college teams may be shrinking, social media platforms have allowed student-athletes forums for their thoughts. Sometimes this gets the athlete in trouble (who can forget Cardale Jones complaining about going to class), but more often than not it results in what scholars have dubbed “parasocial interaction,” where people interact with athletes because they believe they are in an actual, social relationship with the athlete. Scholarly studies of sports fans’ motivations to use social media to follow college sports teams regularly shows a strong motivation for interactivity (Clavio & Walsh, 2014).
Research indicates sports fans particularly enjoy “behind-the-scenes” (Pegoraro, 2010) and first-person content (Kassing & Sanderson, 2010) which brings them closer to a program and permits them to experience a program in unique ways. The University of Michigan partnership with The Players’ Tribune, a site founded by star athlete Derek Jeter, and billed as a place to “bring fans closer than ever to the games they love,” is a good example of this. The series, titled “Our Michigan”, is illustrative of this parasocial interaction. Designed to provide “an immersive look inside University of Michigan Athletics as it celebrates its 150th season of varsity sports,” the series provides a blend of first-person narratives and athlete profiles. A recent post from current Mackey Award-winning tight end Jake Butt lent personality to a player whose last name and position has made him a popular figure in social media. He even dares readers to Tweet jokes to him. He claims to have heard them all.
While there is clearly a demand for individuals who can produce value-added content, are these platforms solely communications vehicles? As pointed out above, they often serve to reach multiple stakeholder groups. A study published in late 2013 noted distinct differences in how Division I athletics directors, sports information directors, and marketing heads perceived the role of Twitter. More than one-third of marketers in the study viewed existing ticket holders as the primary audience for Twitter, while greater than 40% of athletic directors identified alumni as the primary audience. Yet, management of these platforms often rests with the department’s communications staff.
This begs the question of how should ADs view the role of communications going forward? Is it a technical function, or a strategic function? Can it be both simultaneously? Students in my class this fall were presented evidence of isomorphism in college athletics. This is the idea that, in the sphere of organizational association, organizations tend to emulate one another when faced with the same set of environmental conditions. Indeed, this is true of the evolving athletic departments as media organization space. Staff directories across Division I athletics now includes job titles such as “Director of New Media” and “Assistant Athletic Director for Video and Broadcast Services.” SIDs may now answer to the title of “Assistant AD for Communications” or “Assistant AD for Media Relations” instead of Sports Information Director. But have these structural changes led a changing of task function, or are they largely cosmetic?
A topic for another day, it may be worthwhile to revisit the on-going conversation around the role of communications professionals in an athletic department. As a former member of CoSIDA who is now an academic, my view is the membership of CoSIDA continues to struggle establishing its identity and place within athletic departments. Traditionally, SIDs functioned primarily in a media service (statistics, interviews) role. That view appears to be cemented in the eyes of athletic directors. Research from Ruihley, Pratt and Carpenter (2016) found Division I ADs believed the top responsibilities of their primary PR officer were maintaining media contacts and working with coaches and athletes – functions which reinforce the idea that the senior most communications person in an athletic department serves a traditional, technician role.
But while athletic departments often mirror each other structurally, isomorphism does not thwart innovation. Last month, the University of Oklahoma announced it was the becoming the only Power Five athletics department to offer live and on-demand content through Apple TV and Roku. Will we see more direct-to-consumer content platforms in the future? Probably. As Matt Roberts has noted previously in this space (link) (link) (link), the media ecosystem is undergoing rapid and profound changes. The ability to exploit the value creation chain in this space – by creating unique content – may well position the athletic department to achieve fiscal goals.