Friday Night Football Reflections

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For nearly 20 years, 19 to be exact, the place has been a familiar one on most fall Friday nights.

Sure, the states and towns may have differed in one way or another, but since August of 1999, Friday nights have been spent in a press box somewhere covering high school football.

With so many games during that time, a few things are bound to stick out and resonate.

Here are some of them.

The First Time Out

Back in the late summer of 1999, when I was a freshman at Valdosta State, the Valdosta Daily Times got a tip that I might be interested in helping them with high school football coverage of the two teams in their coverage area at the time in Florida, Madison County and Hamilton County. For someone who one day aspired to be a full-time sportswriter, there could not have been a better opportunity. The basic goal was to do a story each week on each team and cover whichever team was at home that Friday. Through that process, I was able to learn what it was like to get the know coaches and develop a relationship with them. One was actually a former teacher I had at Lowndes (Bruce Begue) and the other would later come to Lowndes (more on that later). I don’t remember who Hamilton County played on that hot August night to open the season, but I won’t forget the emotion of, ‘hey, I am actually covering a game.’

How ’bout them Cowboys!

Before he was hired at Lowndes, I got to know Randy McPherson as the head coach of Madison County. When I would go by for a weekly chat after practice, it would usually consist of drinking back a Gatorade from the coach’s office fridge and not only talking about his own team, but the game of football itself…all as he began to pore over volumes of game film and even point out details of what was on the film. I covered Madison for three years, and after two years of near misses, a state title was captured in 2001. For a young college kid, it was surreal covering a game in the FSU press box as Madison won. Oh, and turning around and having a conversation with FSU broadcasting legend Gene Deckerhoff was not too bad, either.

Bazemore-Hyder

In Valdosta, two things take the stage each Friday night – when Valdosta and/or Lowndes plays at home. It’s the biggest game in town, and growing up, one of the first things you did the next morning was pick up the paper to read the game story and box score. In 2001, when I covered Madison County, it played at Valdosta, and the call was made for me to cover the game that night. It was humbling sitting in the press box, knowing how many storied moments had happened on the field before. Of course, there was pressure…also knowing that all of town knew your name was on the story the next day since the local radio station would always use your halftime stats and read them off saying, ‘Halftime stats provided by Brad Harrison of the Valdosta Daily Times..”

Valdosta edged out Madison County that night. After the game, then-VHS head coach Mike O’Brien had high praise for Madison, predicting that the Cowboys would win a state title that year. He was right.

Lumberton

My first job after graduating college was in Lumberton, NC. And while I moved a few weeks into the season, the first game that I covered there, when Lumberton opened the season with a win after being winless the year before, left a big impact. After getting to know the multiple players and coaches during the summer, seeing their jubilation of getting a win was pure joy that I’ll never forget.

Demons and Eagles

Growing up in Valdosta, you get spoiled by the passion that comes out of the Winnersville Classic. Outside of that rivalry, the one between Warner Robins and Northside is not too far behind. It’s tough the match the level of intensity between the Demons and Eagles, even if the energy is a bit diluted compared to the past before Veterans and Houston County’s programs existed.

First Time In The Telegraph

Officially, I started at The Macon Telegraph in September of 2006. Unofficially, my first time with a byline there was December of 2000, albeit unexpectedly. The Friday night after Thanksgiving, since I was already in Macon with family from the day before, I slotted myself into covering Cook in the playoffs against Wilkinson County while I was stringing (even if it felt full-time) for the Valdosta Daily Times. Back then, cell phone hot spots did not exist. Often, writers would find a local newspaper office and use a computer there to file a story.

With the game being played in Macon at Thompson Stadium, it made logical sense for me to call up The Telegraph, and they obliged to let me use a spare connection to file my story. Before I filed, I got a tap on my shoulder asking if they could run my story, which I had no issue with. It was surreal to see my name in print the next day or even a week or two later when a family member mailed me a clipping, seeing my name in the sports section I had read so much growing up on trips to Macon.

Resurgence

It’s no fun showing up to games watching teams hit speed bump after speed bump with no hope of winning. When the ship turns around, it’s all the more fun to see the players and others in the program have a taste of success. First-hand being able to see Barney Hester’s turnaround of the Howard program was unforgettable, as was Justin Rogers taking the Jones County program to among the best in its classification. The energy around the Jones County program and what it has meant to Gray, made it one of the funnest atmospheres around.

Atmosphere, Part II

Given my commute home from Atlanta Motor Speedway for eight years, it was logical for me to stop off in Forsyth to cover Mary Persons. Truth be told, I got spoiled to be able to cover not only a tradition-laden program, but also one of the more electric places in the midstate to see a football game. Few things beat a packed house at Dan Pitts Stadium with fans lining the hill to watch the contest on the field surrounded by the stands and elevated hills around it.

Sense of Community

In November of 2014, I got up on a Friday with plans that night to cover Mary Persons that night in the playoffs against Westover and their big standout lineman – Trenton Thompson. That all changed around 1 pm when I got the call that our daughter, then four months old, was being taken to the ER for what ended up being a three-week stay for RSV and the flu.

There are many things that stick out from that time.

Among them was a week or so later when I showed up to cover Stratford Academy and without prompting, had multiple Stratford coaches ask how our daughter was doing. I had a similar question when I talked to Mary Persons head coach for a preview story during that timeframe.

Things like that…they remind that if you’re around high school football long enough, it’s not just what happens on Friday nights. It’s the community and family that makes it special.

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Six-Year Anniversary Reflections and Musings

Thanks to LinkedIn, it’s very hard to forget when your work anniversary is coming up. Those notifications from contacts congratulating you on another year at your current stop are hard to miss. Naturally, when that time comes, it’s usually a good time to look back and reflect on all that has happened during your time wherever you have been in that span.

1. Social Media Is a BIG Moving Target

I usually tell people that if you think you are up on the latest social media trend, it’s best to enjoy the moment, because it won’t last long. Social Media is one of the most rapidly advancing areas to communicate, and it changes almost daily. Back when I came on board at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2009, I was charged with starting a Facebook and Twitter account. There was no Instagram, Vine, Snapchat or Periscope to speak of. You cannot afford to get too comfortable, that’s for sure. In the words of Brad Pitt’s character, Billy Beane in “Money Ball,” ‘Adapt or Die.’

2. Soak Up The Moment

In the midst of all the focus on posts, content curation and mulling over metrics, don’t forget to enjoy what you are doing! One thing I still carry with me, even to this day, from one of my former bosses, Marcy Scott, who passed away about a year and a half ago, is that thousands of people who come into the gates each weekend would give their right arm to do what we do. Sure, there’s going to be hard days and mountains of stress, but we get to do what 99 percent of the the fans in stands wish they had a chance to do.

3. Unique experiences that I wish my granddad was around for

I’ll never forget my first race weekend in September of 2009, victory lane after the Sprint Cup race, especially. Kasey Kahne won the race, and there in victory lane was his Richard Petty Motorsports team it did not dawn on me until I turned and saw The King himself, team owner Richard Petty. For someone whose Dad was a big Petty fan growing up…and whose granddad was not only a Petty fan, but once took my grandma to a short track race, it was hard not to feel nostalgic. If there was a regret during that time, it was that my granddad wasn’t around for me to tell him about what it was like seeing Richard Petty in victory lane.

4. Keep Striving

As social media continues to evolve, it becomes more and more important for everyone in the social and digital space to gain information and build a network of colleagues. One of the biggest assets I have had have been Twitter chats such as #SMSportsChat or #SBChat. They have introduced me to some top-flight folks who do a lot of the similar things I do and igniting an avenue to gain best practices and also act as a sounding board. If you are looking to break into sports, join these chats!

5. Engage and Build

It goes without saying that social media has to in so many ways be a two-day conversation. Sure, there is going to be messaging that has to be pushed out. But a critical component to social media is to build up advocates who will be in your corner – and sometimes those come in unexpected places.

One of my favorite stories tied into this happened, I guess five years ago. We had a comment under a piece of content from a fan telling us how emotional the race would be for them. It turned out that their cousin, who had come to the Atlanta race for many years with their family and camped out with them, would not be at the upcoming race – he had been killed a month earlier while serving in Afghanistan. With that info, we were able to get in touch with the family and give them a tour of the garage during race weekend, which meant a lot to them. The awesome thing was that a few months down the road one of the other family members ran into one of our staff and mentioned how much that experience…and fans surprising them with a banner signed by nearby fans and campers, meant to them.

Sometimes, you just never know where the chance to make an impact with a fan or customer will present itself.

Sports and the power of community

From time to time, handwringing over the emphasis and resources poured into athletics is brought to the forefront.

The past few days around the campus of Mercer University and around Macon, Ga., have cemented a large reason why.

Both Mercer and the city of Macon have received exposure and publicity that no amount of money could have brought.

Consider this. During the hour after the Bears’ March Madness-rocking upset of Duke, Mercer’s Web site received 72,000 visits…93 percent of which were first-time visitors.

Needless to say, a lot of March Madness conversations on Friday were something to the effect of “Mercer? Where in the heck is Mercer?”

Mercer’s win against Duke also brought national attention toward Mercer – even on the front page of the New York Times, and the front page of the Macon Telegraph was featured on the front of ESPN.com.

But there was more to the past three days than just on the hardwood.

Young and old, poor and rich, liberal and conservative all united under one common cause – that the hometown team was carrying the flag of Macon – representing them, and making everyone, no matter if they live in Macon now or did so in the past, immensely proud of have a tie in any way to Mercer and Macon, Ga.

Fans of the University of Georgia, known to detest any shade of orange, were grasping for any shade of the color to root on Mercer.

For a few days, folks walked around town with their chests proudly stuck out, proclaiming that it was a point of pride to be from Macon, Ga.

Unfair or not, Macon has suffered from a bad perception, a view that a new generation of Maconites are fighting like mad to dig the city out of (and doing a very good job of it, by the way).

But for a few days, everyone was proud to be from the town that has also given the world the Allman Brothers and Otis Redding, among others.

And all of that local and regional pride is rooted in one thing – the power that comes from athletics impacting a community.

Always Assume The Worst

Today, Major League Baseball teams, in support of GLAAD Spirit Day, changed the avatars of the Facebook and Twitter pages with many posting messages of support for day’s goal of raising awareness to help reduce bullying of LGBT youth. The hashtag of #spiritday was also utilized. 

Frames of avatars were the color purple. 

As you can imagine, responses from numerous fan bases were, well, not so positive.

A brand can have the best and well thought out intent with any type of crowd sourcing or promotion of an initiative. But it is critical to think of one thing with any posting, and that is “what’s the worst response that we could get, and will that response overshadow the intent of this messaging?”

A prime example was McDonald’s #MCDStories, which did not end well

In this case, the responses probably overshadowed the intent of MLB teams. This should not discourage anyone from postings that will generate a large amount of response, but the key is to bear in mind the worst possible backlash that could come. 

Social media: A Way To Exceed Expectations

Recently while scanning Facebook, I stumbled across a stat that stuck out to me. That 25 percent of consumers who complain about a product on Facebook expect a response within an hour.  

A few things stick out, here. 

One is that brands who are not quick to respond are missing the boat when it comes to one of social media’s main goals – to engage customers and build brand ambassadors. A quick and timely response shows that a brand values two-way communication on social media and is not a one-way bullhorn of sponsor/promo messaging. 

Secondly, if only 25 percent of customers expect a response to start with, brands have a golden opportunity to exceed expectations. When a brand uses social media to interact with, assist and engage customers far above a level of which that customer expects, it creates a wow factor and makes building brand ambassadors a much easier task.

 

Four years of racing and social media

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Today four years ago, I wheeled my car into the parking lot at 1500 Highway 19/41 in Hampton not too long after I got a phone call gauging my interest in a job that entailed a growing trend of social media and implementing it at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Now, four years later, it’s so hard to believe how big social media has taken off. In 2009, most brand barely had a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter. Now, they cannot afford not to, and more energy than ever before is being directed towards social media than before.

Any time you work within sports, chances are good that you’ll have some memorable experiences, and there have certainly been more than a few for me at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

1. You’re the brand advocate.

Thanks to mobile devices in part, more fans than every before reach out to brands with feedback and questions around the time of events. I’ll never forget then fan who was unhappy with a seat location on Friday of race weekend and let us know about it via social media. We were able to get their seating info and get them taken care of, and that fan went out of their way to make a post on our wall singling out our customer service efforts. That process began because of social media. There was also a Facebook wall post from a family member of a serviceman killed in Afghanistan, lamenting that the upcoming race would be their family’s first without them. We were able to do a few things for this family on race weekend – and fans in a campground put up a makeshift banner ensuring fans to sign it in memory.

You are the face of your brand on social media and if fans are excited about your brand, or displeased, you are the first one that they will turn to.

2. Social Media Is Two-Way

Yes, it is a valuable tool to sell tickets, but social media cannot only be about promotional elements. Do what you can to show your fans that you’re just like them…ask about their lives, find out what makes them tick. When you know your fans, you can produce better content.

3. Victory Lane

I’ll never forget being in victory lane during my first race weekend. It’s the place all drivers and crew members strive for, and being in the midst of it is surreal. The cool thing was that Richard Petty Motorsports was in victory lane…which meant seeing Richard Petty himself. I instantly thought of my grandad who died in 1998 who was a huge fan of “The King.”

4. Wear A Flak Jacket

You have to have thick skin in this deal. If fans on social media are unhappy with your brand, you may very well be the one feeling the biggest punch of that criticism. Don’t take it personal. I’ve been through two pretty heavy crisis events at AMS.

The first came in 2010 with the news that we would no longer have a spring race. Having to be the person to tell fans that the days of joining us for a March race weekend were over…was very sobering. Even though you knew the backlash was coming, that didn’t make it easy to face.

The second one was a year later with our Labor Day Weekend race being postponed from Sunday night to Tuesday morning due to rain. Obviously, many fans were not happy and they quickly took to social media to express their displeasure. In a situation like that, all you can do is keep your head up and make sure all response is aligned and to keep everything even-keeled. 

5. Laugh at yourself.

Accidentally playing “Crazy Train” instead of The National Anthem over the sound system at an event with 5,000 people is embarrassing at first, but becomes funnier as time goes on.

 

Social Media Job Search Pointers

It usually happens almost as if it is on clockwork.

When I tell people what I do for a living and what brand I do it for, the question quickly follows: “How’d you get into doing that?”

Of course, this is also when there’s the assumption that working in social media is not much more than getting to hang out on Facebook and Twitter all day, but if you work in social media in any way, you likely know there is far more to it than that.

But social media jobs, especially within sports, can be compared to gold bullion. Everyone wants them, but they are not many of them out there to be had. Still, this is May, and odds are that there is another crop of college graduates eyeing jobs within sports and social media. Here are a few pointers to get on your way to a job within sports and social media.

1. Write, write and write!

Find a way to write, however you can. It may be with a freelance publication, someone who may need help with a Web site or even a blog. A critical part of social media is written content that is clear, concise and compelling. Find ways to write, and it can help immensely in polishing your writing and communications ability.

2. Observe

Like and follow as many brands as you can. Almost put together a list, sometimes written down of a wish list for what you’d like to see a brand do and perhaps look at a social media strategy and come up with ways to tweak it for your own use.

3. Twitter Chats

One of the most invaluable tools for those within and looked to be within many industries are Twitter chats, where you can more or less talk shop and exchange best practices with others who are experienced within their fields. #smsportschat and #sbchat are must-dos if you want to get plugged in within sports and social media.

4. Get Experience, However It Comes

Social media can at times be a hybrid position, depending on your brand. It’s not uncommon for it to have a tie-in to marketing, sponsorship, ticket sales, facility operations and more. Volunteer to help out, even if it means helping an area of a sports team or organization in one of its lowest levels. It’ll help you gain a great understanding of how entire organizations work and not just one area.

5. Be a Fan! 

In the end, a lot of social media is about connecting with fans. Don’t forget to be one! Now, it’s important, in a large way not to look at social media as getting to hang out with (insert your favorite team here). But it’s vital to never forget what it is like to be one of those of which you are trying to reach and connect with. 

Go to a game as a fan every now and then. Even if you ‘know’ someone who can get you great seats with a parking pass, avoid it. Sit in the cheap seats, eat the stadium food and pay for parking. Remember what it’s like to be that diehard fan.