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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Inside UCF’s Social National Championship

How a 13–0 season and being left out of the College Football Playoffs helped the Knights win the internet.

A look at one of the graphics UCF created around their “National Championship” (Image via UCF)

While procrastinating during the search for what my first blog topic would be, I stumbled upon a Netflix documentary called Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. It was an in-depth, behind the scenes look at the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. While it was interesting, one quote from Jim Carrey stood out above the rest.

“At some point when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are, or you’re going to have to kill who you really are and fall into your grave grasping a character you never were.”

That’s when it hit me. That quote describes the duality of being a social media professional, especially in sports. You spend your time being the voice of a brand that you help construct that is separate from yourself. In some cases you even create a character that convinced others that you’re an expert, guru or some other grandiose descriptor.

The problem is, there are no masters of social media. It’s a role that some try to play but here, in this blog, I’ve decided to embrace the truth and myself. We’re all just students of social media continually trying to learn as much as we can in an industry that gets changed more often than an infant’s diaper.

I experienced it first hand over my five years running social for the Phoenix Suns. When I started, social consisted of being able to write short and pithy text to catch attention on Facebook and Twitter. Within a year we had seen Google Plus pull a Justice League arriving with much fanfare and being forgotten almost as fast. Facebook quickly began to reward stronger visuals while also syphoning off organic reach with a stronger algorithm and instagram arrived to literally change the way we all looked at social. And that’s before you even mention Snapchat or talk about the social graveyard that includes one hit wonders like Peach and VoiceByte. It was a lifetime’s worth of change and growth jam packed into a little over five trips around the sun..

Over the next weeks, months and hopefully years we’ll go on the journey together studying the latest and best examples in #SMSports. I’ll share lessons I’ve learned along the way and observations I have in the moment.

So Social Studies class is in session and our first lesson is on the importance of understanding your brand voice and utilizing it in opportune moments.

Enter the University of Central Florida Knights.

UCF football was nothing to talk about three seasons ago. They were the Cleveland Browns of collegiate football having finished 0–12. Not ideal for creating social buzz, I know from experience.

Fast forward to the 2017 season.

They were the darlings of everyone who believes in the Joker’s stance that chaos is fair. They were a team who, by entering Bowl season undefeated, could disrupt the established norm of the College Football Playoff. With their Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, the team, just two years removed from not winning a game, completed a perfect season. Oh, and they also had a unique claim. That claim was that they deserved to be recognized as National Champions. Not just because of their perfect record but because they beat the Tigers who had beaten the two teams, Alabama and Georgia, who were in the title game.

It was the perfect storm. A once in a lifetime opportunity to create buzz and engagement around their team and brand. A chance to make a name for themselves and point out a major flaw in the current system. The athletic department, and in particular their social team, didn’t waste any time fully capitalizing on it.

“Once the playoff field was set and we saw the matchups, we knew that when we beat Auburn, and if Alabama and Georgia won, we’d be able to to be aggressive in our claim as Undefeated Champions,” Eric DeSalvo, Director of Digital and Social Media for the UCF Athletic Department told Front Office Sports. “We’d been pretty outspoken all season against the CFP weekly rankings, so going aggressive as the clock hit 0:00 wasn’t going to be out of the norm for us.”

Exactly how outspoken could they really be? Their Athletic Director set the tone and the direction following the Peach Bowl victory.

“It had been discussed and debated if we should come out right away and say National Champions, but I don’t think anyone outside of Danny White (UCF Athletic Director) knew he was going to drop those lines when I had my phone on him during the celebration,” DeSalvo said.

The key to being able to capitalize on the moment was preparation. While the terminology and copy used may be decided in the moment, the look and feel of a entire campaign doesn’t. DeSalvo and his team put in the work throughout the year and in the weeks leading up to the bowl game to ensure that everything had a look and feel that would match their lofty claims.

They planned in advance so the graphic design team could act in the moment.

“We had the initial motion graphic with “Who’s Next” created on New Year’s Eve — thanks, Chris Stoney! — go out a minute after our final-score graphic to make the initial splash. We then felt that an altered playoff bracket motion graphic following the Rose and Sugar Bowls would make another splash. They both did the trick, reaching over 1.25M on each as of January 4th.”

“Our awesome graphic designer, Carlos Phillips, also had to quickly build off of his Peach Bowl Champions logo and create the National Champions one. I later found out that he created the font himself (he’s a beast) to match the font that Nike was going to be using on the championship shirts our team got on the field.”


With time being of the essence with these type of social posts, sometimes needing approval from higher ups can be the death knell for potentially viral content. So how did UCF overcome that? Buy-in long before posting.

“After our initial talks before the bowl game, the trust was in me and our team to deliver the talked about motion graphics and there was no real approval system after our talk,” DeSalvo explained. “I did talk to Danny [White] on the phone the day after the game and he told me to continue to push and be aggressive. I haven’t stopped smiling since hearing those words.”

In social there are a lot of well thought out, well designed and well planned posts and campaigns that don’t pay off despite so much hard work. That wasn’t the case for UCF. Their efforts paid off immensely in the short term.

“The two motion graphics that dropped on Jan. 1 got 225+ direct replies each, but the posts announcing our National Championship with UCF President John C. Hitt’s quote garnered 1,400+ replies on Twitter, while a square version on @ucf.football Instagram has gotten 1,100+ comments. Both numbers are absolutely unheard of for us,” DeSalvo shared.

(Numbers were as of January 4th)

It wasn’t just the responses to single posts that increased. So did their overall following. Since completing their perfect season on December 31st, the Knight’s football accounts have seen a 9.9% grown on Instagram, 9.4% grown on Facebook, and a 5.2% increase in followers on Twitter.

By having a consistent voice throughout the season and creative content at the right moments, UCF captured the feeling and passion of their fan base and made waves.

“At UCF, our teams and fans all have a chip on their shoulders,” DeSalvo said. “They’ve been told what they can’t do for so long despite having continued success on and off the field. We’ll always have that mentality on social and really unleash at the right time. This is one of them.”

And unleash it they did. Regardless of Alabama winning the College Football Playoff National Championship game, it is the University of Central Florida who already won the title on social media. While that might not come with a trophy of its own, it’s helped establish the Knights as a brand to be reckoned with.

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.

Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

Want to learn more, or have a story featured about you or your organization? Contact us today.


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