In the absence of live sports, all eyes have turned to the 2020 NFL Draft. Professional teams are preparing for a virtual draft, fans are adjusting to the idea of Zoom-quality content, and players bracing for a small blow to the pomp and circumstance that usually surrounds one of the most anticipated days of their playing careers.
College teams are always part of that process, but their role has shifted in this virtual draft world. After almost all pro days were canceled, college social media accounts became a place where draft content will not only be created to celebrate their new professional stars, but also to propel them before they’re picked.
“Normally during this time, we’re focused on spring football and our current guys,” Brandon Berrio, LSU’s associate director of creative and digital content, said. “But for the future NFL guys, you spend a couple of days of [content] on a pro day. So we’re in a spot where we would’ve had content for 20-something guys who would’ve participated in our pro day. Since they didn’t get that, how can we spotlight them? How can we highlight our guys in a way they weren’t highlighted on pro day?”
Some of those players were presented with the opportunity to showcase their potential at the 2020 NFL Combine in February. For those prospects, their college’s social media accounts are continuing the conversation while not necessarily driving the attention. But that’s not the case for all draft hopefuls.
“Every year we have a number of projected high picks that get national exposure leading up to the draft, so we’re obviously going to promote all those guys, but it’s also really a cool time for us to promote those middle-tier guys that aren’t getting all the national love,” Zach Swartz, Ohio State football director of creative media, said. “So we’ve been doing a lot of lead up over the last week. We’ll probably end up with at least the same amount of draft content as normal, if not more.”
The Tigers’ Heisman winning quarterback Joe Burrow is the likely No. 1 pick. Chase Young, the Buckeyes star defensive end, is a likely No. 2. Both have long been on the radar of scouts and NFL teams.
“They’ve gotten a lot of attention, and they’ve had attention during the year,” Berrio said. “So we’re trying to focus on some of our guys who weren’t able to put their tape out there for scouts or do interviews in person, which is a huge part of pro days and combines. So this has lent us an opportunity to focus on those guys in a way we haven’t in the past.”
Ohio State has seen a similar opportunity arise.
“The top guys, they get so much promotion everywhere, and their names blow up,” Swartz said. “We don’t have to do much with those guys. The pieces of content that we have for everybody, we’re going to do for them. But with the guys who are not as big of names that people across the country might know right on hand, usually, pro day is a really good time for us to show [them].”
Players themselves are also contributing to the cause.
“Some of those underrated players like [wide receiver] Derrick Dillon, a fantastic player, wasn’t getting as much attention as Justin Jefferson or Ja’Marr Chase,” Berrio added. “But he would’ve started anywhere else, and his teammates know that. They’re sharing this stuff and pumping him up like, ‘Man, he’s a steal of the draft.'”
As a result, social teams have focused their efforts on spotlighting both categories of potential picks.
“We’ll have a lot of content around trying to promote all our players’ brands,” Kyle Coulter, TCU football’s director of new and creative media, who runs the teams’ social media accounts, said. “Especially in terms of making sure their new fans know where to follow them and trying to grow their followings.”
To do so, a team like LSU is going all-in on draft-centric social content: circulating highlights, sharing Zoom interviews with prospects on YouTube and Twitter, curating written content series to share, and working on content for the draft days themselves. Graphics and reels are being prepped by social departments at colleges across the country; throwback draft content is being curated from archives and, in Baton Rouge, a series of hype videos are in the works, narrated by former LSU players who were themselves selected in the round of the draft the specific video is showcasing.
The hope is that those videos will highlight LSU’s less-heralded prospects – with the narrators as a reminder that a late pick doesn’t preclude NFL success.
“It’s challenged us because we’ve never done this much content on the draft,” Berrio said. “But it’s kind of a perfect storm where we don’t have content, and this will probably be the most successful draft we’ve ever had. So we want to make sure it is the most successful for all our guys.”
Live, at-home video footage will be passed from the league back to schools as well, giving colleges raw content to push out about their prospects from draft day.
“The NFL started seeing a few years ago that the colleges have the audience that can translate to the NFL because our fans are passionate about the players, so if they see Joe [Burrow] go to Cincinnati, they’re probably going to watch more Cincinnati games,” Berrio said. “The NFL has gotten really good about linking us with the clubs and sharing content, so their planning from two years ago has put us in a really good place right now for this different challenge and different draft.”
The challenge for college social media teams is that they’re tasked with continuing to create new content in a moment where both high-quality production and in-person elements aren’t possible.
“In a normal year, I’d be able to sit down with every player over these last few weeks to put together some nice, produced interviews to be able to go out on draft day,” Swartz said of OSU’s typical strategy. “That’s probably the biggest loss. We’ve had to create a plan for how to counteract that.”
Ohio State instead has family members, teammates, NFL players, alumni, high school teachers, and coaches, “everybody we could think of,” Swartz said, sending in video messages to the players that the school will release leading up to the draft.
“We still have to humanize them,” Swartz said. “This is one of the biggest days of their life. So hopefully we can still make people feel a little bit. The cream of the crop of what we really try to get is that behind-the-scenes stuff, so for guys that are far away, we’re working with them to make sure they’re sending in a video of the moment they get picked as well as hopping on Instagram Live after or record a FaceTime or Zoom conversation with a current coach or a Buckeye on their new team or something.”
And while that content might not be professionally produced to the same standard team social accounts normally hold themselves to, Swartz doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. He says the raw footage actually “really accomplishes that effect of humanizing our athletes and making people realize that these are real people.”
Raw has become a bit of a buzzword before the draft.
“We’re asking our guys to send us some live reaction after their name is called – that great, raw emotional stuff that doesn’t really need much editing or much fluff,” Coulter said. “That stuff plays well with every audience, and we don’t expect that to change just because it’s shot on an iPhone or from our guys’ living rooms instead of the fountains at the Bellagio. It’s just that kind of emotion we’re trying to capture.”
The method might’ve changed to accomplish that, and the overall look might be different this year, but the end goal for all teams is the same.
“We’re still looking to inform and entertain our audience and grow it through the new fans that we’ll get from the teams that our players are drafted to,” Coulter said. “Obviously, the visuals will be quite different, but once a guy is drafted, we’ll still have a few pieces of content per draftee and per [free agent] signee that will set off a whole process of team and player-specific content. Once someone signs with the Chargers, we expect a lot of Chargers fans to come flooding into our page to see who they just drafted. So we want to make sure that those people who do travel to our page still get what they’re looking for.”
And they might be able to do so more successfully than in years past.
“I think the audience is there maybe more than normal because people are working from home, they miss sports, whatever it is,” Berrio said. “So, we’re all putting out an amount of content to match that.”