The landscape of college athletics has undergone a massive overhaul during the past decade, resulting in immense growth and increased competition among schools.
Digital media — which in the early 2000s, was essentially limited to an athletics department website — is now among a program’s greatest assets. It is an everyday necessity in college sports that requires constant attention and a willingness to adapt.
The Sam Houston State Bearkats are embracing the trend.
Sam Houston State announced a partnership with SkullSparks earlier this summer as part of an effort to improve the program’s reach and digital footprint. SkullSparks, which does design and digital strategy with an emphasis on college athletics, spent several months performing a “deep dive” on all of the digital properties for Bearkat athletics.
At the conclusion of the study, the company provided guidance on best practices for the department to achieve its goals and continue to grow digitally.
“We're excited about this opportunity,” said Russell Martinez, associate athletics director for external operations and development. “We think it's a step in the right direction, and it's part of our plan to improve the fan experience.”
At the center of Sam Houston State’s focus is enhancing social media, something that has revolutionized nearly all aspects of the modern college athletics experience — from game day content to branding a program throughout the year to fans, donors and recruits.
The efforts have already paid off, with the Bearkats moving into the top-five among all FCS athletics programs with 11,000 social media interactions generated in the month of July.
“It's not necessarily how many followers, but what the impact is on our followers,” Martinez added.
Jason Matheson, who ran digital operations at Auburn, Miami and Oklahoma before founding SkullSparks in 2016, has witnessed the impact of social media’s evolution firsthand.
Matheson remembers creating the first Oklahoma athletics Twitter account in 2009, with many within the department wondering, “Is this even worth it?” With over 250,000 followers today on the Sooners’ main account alone, it’s safe to say it was a worthwhile venture.
“Social media is what we term a push, whereas everything else an athletics department had at their disposal before that was a pull,” Matheson said. “They were asking people to come to their games and experience the brand. They were asking people to tune into the radio network and listen to their broadcast. They were asking to come to the website. … All of that you had to pull people to.
“Social media flipped that. It allowed the brand to push their content on a daily basis, directly into the lives of the people that they were trying to reach.”
A primary focus in the Bearkats’ effort to keep growing their digital reach is an emphasis on providing fans with exclusive content that, in many cases, is already at the athletics department’s disposal.
“It's giving the fans the experience they can't normally get,” Martinez added. “If you have a fan that can't make it to the game, what is the atmosphere like? If they can't hear a coach's pregame speech, maybe we can get in there. It's all about packaging our story. ... Let's get them fired up to come to a game.”