In a typical year, Payton Pritchard and Sabrina Ionescu would currently be leading their respective University of Oregon men’s and women’s basketball teams in March Madness towards a potential national championship.
But, while the coronavirus pandemic might have robbed the Ducks of postseason glory, there is still plenty at stake for the university’s two most notable stars.
Pritchard is on the shortlist for both the Naismith Award and Wooden Award as the best men’s college basketball this season. Ionescu will be looking to win her second consecutive Wooden Award and is also competing for her first Naismith Award as the best player in women’s college basketball in 2019.
While Oregon is only posting sparingly on Instagram and Twitter, it now plans to focus on the individual accomplishments of Ionescu and Pritchard, helping provide a spotlight onto two athletes who Phillips believes have been impactful on both a local and national scale.
“I think both of those [players] have been exemplary examples of what it means to be a student-athlete,” Josh Phillips, Oregon’s assistant athletic director of creative and digital media, said. “I know the men’s basketball program has wanted to tout Peyton as much as possible because he stands for everything they want to represent. Their slogan and their motivation behind what they do is, “Sometimes you. Sometimes me. Always us.”
“Sabrina has not only been the face of our program but the face of women’s basketball and basketball in general for the last year or so,” Phillips added. “The fact that we see kids, boys, men, women wearing Sabrina’s jersey at our games, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
While COVID-19 robbed Oregon of March Madness, Phillips’ interests beyond the player-of-the-year awards is on a bigger occasion: the draft. Three of the Ducks’ women’s basketball stars – Ionescu, Satou Sabally, and Ruthy Hebard – are projected to finish No. 1, 3, and 5 in the 2020 WNBA Draft, according to ESPN’s Michelle Voepel. Pritchard is the Ducks’ lone men’s basketball player expected to be drafted in ESPN’s 2020 NBA Mock Draft.
Phillips already has an idea for how to celebrate Oregon’s next crop of NBA and WNBA players in each league’s respective drafts – with inspiration from March Madness. Originally meant for the men’s and women’s tournaments, Phillips will instead repurpose the content for draft night.
“The draft is kind of the big thing on my mind as the next event that will happen in some capacity,” Phillips said. “Our communication will start to shift on that. We’ll start to celebrate the fact that we had three Pac-12 Championships this year, even though we weren’t able to compete in the national postseason.”
Regardless of how many Oregon Ducks get drafted into the NBA and WNBA, the two faces of the university right now are Ionescu and Pritchard. In 2015, the year before Ionescu’s freshman year in Eugene, the women’s basketball team had just over 1,000 season-ticket holders; that number is now more than 7,000.
In the season before Ionescu arrived, the Ducks’ average home attendance for women’s basketball games was 1,501. By the end of her freshman year, average home attendance rose to 2,595, a 72% rise year-over-year. That number then grew to 4,255 and 7,148 by her sophomore and junior campaigns, respectively. And after the Ducks hosted their last home game of the season on March 1, it guaranteed them an average home attendance of 10,852 this season – a 623% increase from 2015-2016.
On the men’s side, Pritchard has helped spearhead Oregon’s improved following on Instagram. Between September 8, 2019, and March 9, 2020, the Ducks’ men’s basketball account has added nearly 11,000 followers on the Facebook-owned platform, tops in Pac-12 basketball. Its more than 76,700 Instagram followers are third-most in the conference, behind league-leader UCLA and Arizona.
Despite last season’s Sweet 16 appearance, Phillips admits that the team’s Instagram account was not doing its due diligence. Posts were sporadic, and there weren’t enough resources for building a better following.
Heading into the 2019-2020 campaign, Phillips and his staff began using Instagram for recruiting purposes. Content had evolved from typical photo dumps to multimedia posts strategically posted at a certain time.
The clearest example of Oregon’s evolution on Instagram came during a mid-season game versus Washington on January 18, Phillips said. At every game this season, the Ducks would have their top videographer sift through the footage, narrow the selection down to two or three plays, and post the best one immediately after the game.
“The key with any sports program in college sports is making sure that the coaching staff understands the importance of a digital presence and giving their marketing communications team access to capture those kinds of moments and share them,” Phillips said.
Even with all of the uncertainty surrounding the future of live sports, Phillips is still struggling to come to terms with how this season ended for Oregon. His mind has not ventured into the summer when football begins preparing for its fall kickoff and what impact coronavirus could potentially have on the Ducks’ social strategy.
For the time being, it is all about remembering the two four-year players that have taken Oregon’s basketball programs to new heights, and celebrating the next step in their careers, Phillips said.
“Fans felt that [Pritchard] deserved to be mentioned in the All-Conference awards [last year] and he wasn’t – this year he was the conference player of the year,” Phillips said. “So someone like that who’s dedicated, working out every day is really something that a team can rally behind in terms of a leader.”
“And Sabrina is an incredibly charismatic person,” he added. “I don’t know if I would have thought that I was going to see in my lifetime – people down shooting on the court, [playing pickup], and wearing a 20 Oregon jersey. That’s pretty special, changing the game and the way people think about and consider the game.”