(*Team Infographics is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, fans of the New Mexico State University Aggies have embraced the team’s blue-collar mentality over the years through conference changes, staff turnover, and just two winning seasons since 2000.
While it can be easy to get cynical with that type of record, NMSU has rejected this attitude and built a striking and unique digital presence that stands out in the college football landscape.
Creating this current reputation for the better part of the last decade has been a joint task between NMSU’s media relations and marketing departments, which are composed of two full-time staff members and many hardworking graduate assistants. Those two full-timers are Assistant Director of Marketing Nicole Sack and Assistant Athletic Director DJ Downs.
A native New Mexican, NMSU graduate, and former wearer of the Aggie mascot costume, Downs became assistant director of marketing in 2012 before quickly being promoted to director of marketing and then to his current assistant AD position. Since 2012, NMSU football has been a member of the Western Athletic Conference, an independent, and a member of the Sun Belt.
Back in 2012 and the few years before that, a time when the era of WAC football was coming to an end with a bang, NMSU football had trouble competing on the field with some of the other teams in their conference. This created a unique challenge in building a strong brand for the Aggies that Downs took head-on.
“I don’t think we won more than four games in a season when I was in school here at NMSU,” Downs recalled. “When I got back in 2012, the program was really struggling still. That year we hired coach Doug Martin, and he really inherited a rough situation.”
Regardless of past struggles, embracing those years ultimately became part of the redemption narrative that would become part of the Aggie football identity down the road. Downs explained why this is an important part of the program’s story.
“I think it’s important that the general public understands where the program was and what it had to go through in order for it to be successful. It was part of our journey. With the fans, we began by telling them we were going to have success, but it’s not going to be an overnight project. It’s going to take time and an investment by the university and the community. From there, we just elevated that and in telling that story through, we made a point of remaining positive throughout the really hard times, which unfortunately included a 17-game losing streak.”
While the losses did pile up for the football team over the course of the next few years, Downs and team got the moment they were hoping for in 2017 when NMSU reached the Arizona Bowl and defeated Utah State for its first bowl victory in 57 years.
Moving into 2018, both the football program and its fans entered “uncharted waters,” as Downs calls it, as the Aggies look to build on that success moving forward. The “Uncharted” concept led to a video series that has caught the eyes of fans too.
COMING SOON 🎥| NM State Football: UNCHARTED pic.twitter.com/qrDQV7Rooi
— NM State Football (@NMStateFootball) August 4, 2018
Throughout the difficult years, Downs and company made sure that they were staying positive and keeping fans engaged on social media the entire time.
“I think a big part of what we did was remaining positive and putting out a calm confidence through our brand online. At least through social media or through our website, we wanted a positive brand and a positive voice even when things weren’t going well. We didn’t shy away from talking about bad things, but we definitely tried to always be aggressive about sharing the positive things about the program.”
Whether it was community involvement or highlighting the individual feats of players like Larry Rose or sharing new uniforms, Downs and company made it their mission to instill hope in the Aggie faithful.
“Nobody wants to repost something about losing, naturally,” Downs said. “Everybody wants to be a winner and so when your team’s not winning, people don’t want to talk about it or retweet stuff about losing. It makes you feel negative emotionally.”
— NM State Football (@NMStateFootball) January 1, 2018
“I think by just talking about what we’re wearing, for example, or talking about what’s going on in the program, I think people gravitate towards that,” Downs said. “When you’re proud of it as an athletic department, people are more likely to want to repost that and share that and engage with your brand online rather than when you shy away from it and you don’t say anything.”
During games, the team keeps fans engaged and updated with a healthy mix of video highlights, static graphics, and motion graphics. Recently, the group has enlisted some help from down the road with Team Infographics. Together, the two have created motion graphics and score graphics templates that very much capture the energy of Aggie football.
— NM State Football (@NMStateFootball) September 16, 2018
“I think everyone would look at that and look at our budget and say ‘how can you afford to do that?’ But we worked with Gilbert Chavarria and Team Infographics to identify the things that will make the most impact on social media and how can we take what we’re doing up one level,” Downs said. “I think that’s what they’ve helped us do. We’re on a tight budget, but they were great about working with us on that subject also. Thanks to our combined efforts with them, you can scroll through our Twitter feed and I think we probably look a little bit more like a Power Five school than a lot of mid-majors.”
Just as he has significantly developed NMSU football’s digital efforts over the last half decade, Downs and the NMSU staff have taken pride in developing the next generation of marketers in college athletics. The Aggies keep about 15 undergraduate interns of varying majors on staff each season who have worked their way into full-time roles and graduate assistant jobs all across the country.
Ultimately, the methods that NMSU has used to find creative support roles could provide a model for other universities to provide students and young professionals more opportunities.
For anyone hoping to one day work their way into a role like Downs’, though, he simply recommends making the most of every single opportunity.
“I think a lot of students come in and they just kind of take what comes to them. But the ones that are more successful are the ones that do what we asked them to do, but then they hang around a little longer and ask what else they can do and they can. They try to spread themselves in different ways and get a variety of experience. I think that’s where they can really make a difference: taking on something that’s not being done right now, then running with it. That’s the quickest way to show your value.”
(*Team Infographics is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)