Social media teams at Virginia colleges think creatively to engage fans, recruits

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“Send me as many GIFs as you can.”

That’s the text Virginia football director of player personnel Justin Anderson sent Kevin Thurman, the director of marketing and a social media strategist for UVa athletics, at the beginning of April.

COVID-19 temporarily took away collegiate sports. March Madness was lost, as were the seasons for spring sport athletes. The initial shock hit players and coaches, but ripple effects have affected all those involved in collegiate athletics, including social media teams.

For Thurman, that means his days are spent helping the football’s social team find GIFs or helping plan posts designed to engage prospective student-athletes. It also means thinking creatively and using virtual mediums to engage fans despite UVa teams not competing for the past two months. The Cavaliers could go five months or longer without competing due to the timing of the virus and summer being a slow period for collegiate sports.

The break gives UVa an opportunity to hone in its social media efforts.

“I’d say actually this time has helped us — I don’t want to say change our focus because I think we’ve always been focused on engaging with our fans on social — but more so refocus on that,” Thurman said. “We’ve been able to take this time and look at what we’re doing and what are we doing for our fans, how are we providing for our fans?”

UVa has engaged fans with a variety of different social campaigns. The social team runs Wahoo Wednesdays, which have shared rebroadcasts of classic Virginia games with virtual watch parties of players and coaches who took part in the classic game.

Former UVa men’s basketball stars Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell and London Perrantes recently jumped on a virtual call to discuss the 2014 ACC Tournament championship game as it was rebroadcast on the ACC’s social channels.

Posts in recent months featured Twitter polls allowing fans to vote for the top UVa plays of the year with accompanying video showing those top plays. Despite an absence of live sports, fans could still watch the best plays from the games that were played in 2019-20.

UVa’s director of broadcasting, Dave Koehn has held “Home with the ‘Hoos” interviews, speaking with Sean Doolittle, Val Ackerman and Malcolm Brogdon, among other people. These give die-hard fans a chance to catch up with former athletes.

This Saturday will be dubbed “Wahoowa Saturday,” and there will be plenty of virtual events throughout the day to celebrate UVa athletics. At 10 a.m., current coaches will kick off the event with a welcome message. Classic highlights and trivia will occur throughout the afternoon, and there’s a virtual tailgate party scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

Classic radio broadcasts take center stage from 1-6 p.m. A 4 p.m. re-broadcast on the ACC Network of a 2007 football game between UVa and Miami is the highlight of the day. Virginia beat the Hurricanes 48-0 in the contest, the final game played in the Orange Bowl, and there will be a watch party available on Twitter and Facebook featuring Al Groh as well as members of the team to discuss the blowout.

The day ends with a singing of “The Good Old Song” at 7 p.m.

While there aren’t live collegiate sports taking place, UVa’s athletic social feeds remain active and produce content daily.

Other colleges in the commonwealth have followed a similar strategy of remaining active and aiming to provide viewers with something positive to look forward to each week.

Virginia Tech hosted a watch party of sorts toward the beginning of quarantine with head football coach Justin Fuente, who talked through the team’s six-overtime win over North Carolina. He provided detailed insight into how the team handled quarterback injuries within the game and how he viewed the team’s dramatic win.

“I think keeping our student-athletes, our coaches, our donors, our season-ticket holders, our fans, engaged is our role right now,” Pete Moris, Virginia Tech’s associate athletics director, said in late April. “I think anything that provides a sense of normalcy or some sort of not COVID conversation, there’s definitely an appetite for it right now.”

The Hokies’ social feeds include interviews with players as well as a steady diet of images and videos of past highlights.

With people spending more time inside to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with news about the virus. Virginia Tech hopes its content provides an outlet for stress relief by helping fans relive historic moments or hear from players and coaches.

Recruiting also plays a role in the use of social media by programs in Virginia.

With coaches barred from visiting recruits in person due to NCAA regulations, social media is one of the main ways recruits can stay engaged with a university. A combination of strong social media use and frequent telephone or virtual calls with coaches may be the difference between landing a recruit and having the player commit elsewhere.

“Our coaches feel like one of the few ways they can be visible is through social media,” Chris Kowalczyk, VCU’s assistant athletic director for communications, said in late April. “We’re trying to keep that in mind during this time. We want to be posting frequently. We want to be active, and we want to be sure we keep recruiting in mind.”

UVa also places an emphasis on recruiting, taking advantage of its video team when possible to provide content exclusive to prospective student-athletes.

“Women’s lacrosse wanted to do a virtual tour of grounds with their coaches, so one of our video staff members, Mike Schuler, went around grounds with them and filmed them at different spots talking about things and is putting together kind of a virtual tour that they can send recruits,” Thurman said.

The women’s lacrosse program added a graduate transfer the same day Thurman spoke to The Daily Progress, indicating a positive result of the virtual tours.

For UVa, its focus is on four groups: current fans, prospective fans, current student-athletes and prospective student-athletes. The athletic department crafts content aimed toward athletes as well as fans or potential fans. The content varies by medium, with Instagram posts being targeted more toward athletes or prospective athletes than Facebook posts.

Virtual tours and active social media accounts can help land recruits. Much of the other content put out by UVa and other athletic departments in Virginia are designed to entertain fans, giving them something to look forward to in a stressful and uncertain time.

Without live collegiate sports, team social media feeds can be the next best thing.

“If I work every day thinking that we can have a positive impact on people’s lives, that’s fantastic,” Kowalczyk said. “That’s really great, and that does help, because this isn’t the easiest environment to work in, but if you know you’re maybe putting a smile on somebody’s face one day, that certainly helps make it easier.”

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