Sports broadcasting and social media rise in importance during COVID-19

Roman Uglehus

Sports Editor

ruglehus@unca.edu

Photo by Roman Uglehus                              Director of Live Productions Brian Yohe working behind the scenes at UNC Asheville’s swim meet against Liberty University on Oct. 23.

UNC Asheville’s swimming and diving team took on Campbell on Oct. 17, marking the university’s first athletics contest since early March. With no competitions held for seven months, the university’s media teams worked hard to display other aspects of the athletic programs.

No fans were allowed to watch the swim meet in person at the Justice Center Pool because of the safety restrictions brought on by COVID-19, so UNCA athletics decided to livestream the meet. Director of Live Productions Brian Yohe said the meet against Campbell was the first time he and his team streamed a swim competition.

“This is the first time we’re trying it. It’s still kind of jerry-rigged and thrown together because all my equipment is in the weight room and we’re just running cables out to the middle of the pool. It’s not quite high enough to get the whole pool but it’s something right now which is cool,” Yohe said.

With continued uncertainties regarding spectators at athletic events, live streaming and social media will continue to be important in showcasing collegiate athletic events as they slowly come back into play.

Matt Stradley, who works for UNCA and a handful of other Division I colleges doing sports commentary, said he enjoyed being able to do his first commentating job of the semester.

“It was a blast. Coach Lykins and Ian, her assistant coach, were absolutely fantastic to work with and to work for. I had unprecedented access to the coach, she came in during both the intermissions and did an interview on the air and I’ve never had that with any sport,” Stradley said. “To have coach Lykins on the air to talk about what she thought about the swimming, what she’s looking forward to, I think was extremely engaging. To have the coach there gives me as an announcer something to kind of look out for but also if you’re watching from home, that kind of access is amazing.”

Elizabeth Lykins, head coach of UNCA’s swimming and diving team, said both Stradley and Yohe did a great job in broadcasting their first swim meet.

“Brian, his entire staff, and Matt with our commentating both were excellent. We tried to give as much information as we could knowing that swimming isn’t always a mainstream sport that everybody knows about, so it might need some more information and both of them were so receptive and useful to wanting to learn more and knowing the best way to announce things,” Lykins said. “I know Matt even took advantage of watching some YouTube videos and some other races on swimming and listening to the commentators so that he could understand what things to highlight and what things maybe were better left unsaid.”

Saturday’s swim meet marked the first competition held by an athletics team at UNCA since March, meaning Yohe and his team lost out on a lot of game streams since then.

“We’re trying to make up for losing what probably would’ve been 50 or so streams by now. We were geared for 25 for baseball, and usually 30 or something for the fall,” Yohe said.

Stradley also noted he lost out on commentating a considerable amount of games due to the delay of many college athletics fall seasons due to COVID-19.

“I’ve only done one broadcast since this has happened where as I normally would have worked at this point maybe 40 broadcasts this school year. The protocols are wild, and I have to say, of everywhere I’ve been, and everything that I’ve seen, the way Asheville is handling everything is great. I think so anyway,” said the UNC Chapel Hill alumnus.

Both the social media and live productions teams at UNCA got creative in finding other outlets and content to provide to the public in the srping during the summer. One example of new content was the Thursday 30 podcast series.

Throughout the summer Stradley and John Williams, who helps commentate with Stradley at UNCA’s basketball games, created a podcast series in which they spoke with several coaches as well as with current and former student-athletes to discuss topics ranging from their canceled seasons to the problems of social injustice in America.

According to Stradley, he enjoyed being able to showcase the people behind the university’s athletic programs with the new podcast series.

“It’s awesome because we get to highlight one sport, one coach and all the players on the team each week to really just give them some attention and hopefully win some new fans for them. It’s good to check in with the coaches because they are just in a whole different thing now, even if they’re starting to practice because practice doesn’t look anything like what practice used to look like,” Stradley said.

According to David Jandrew, UNCA’s associate athletics director for external operations, the Thursday 30 podcast series got good reactions from the Bulldog fans.

“The feedback that we got was great. It was a success because Matt, John Williams and Brian did a great job of making our coaches feel comfortable and kind of keeping the conversation going throughout the entire series. Our friends, the folks that watched it, really enjoyed getting to know some of the coaches and some of the programs and student-athletes that they may not know,” Jandrew said.

Jandrew also said starting the series could not have come at a better time.

“It was a great series and it came during a time in which there wasn’t games obviously being played, there weren’t practices going on, so it was a good way for us to be able to continue to communicate with our parents, our friends, people in the community, whoever it is during a time when there wasn’t much else going on with bulldog athletics,” said the Hickory native.

Social media plays a big role in helping provide families and fans with content so they can see their teams and student-athletes during this long period of not having any athletic competitions. Throughout the summer, and still now, UNCA’s social media accounts continue to provide a multitude of different content options, from showcasing competitions among the student-athletes to in-depth interviews with coaches. Jandrew emphasized the importance of social media during these times.

“It’s been really important for us to utilize those social media platforms to stay in front of our audiences, whoever it might be, whether it’s friends, parents, donors, faculty and staff and even recruits. It’s been really important and the work that they’ve done has been really good. The competition that just wrapped up, the Masked Singer that we did, that was the brainchild of the people on our athletics communications team and they conceptualized it, put it together,” Jandrew said. “They had a lot of fun and our social media interactions have gone up, it was exponential. It’s been great to see them work together to come up with creative ideas to keep us in front of our audiences.

Mark Godin, director of multimedia at UNCA, said the Bulldog Masked Singer was a competition where student-athletes of different sports faced off against one another as they each sang a song. To decide the winner of each face off, social media followers would vote for the winner.

“As like an alleviation from all the stress that’s happening in the last couple months we started a bunch of competitions, one of which was the Bulldog Masked Singer. We were playing upon the fact that everybody had to wear masks and social distance. We made a singing competition where our athletes had to select their competitors but they all performed acapella to whatever song they wanted,” Godin said.

The Bulldog Masked Singer competition proved to be very successful from a social media standpoint, according to Godin.

“We had a voting system on Twitter and I think we were averaging about 350 votes per competition, which is pretty good for our accounts. The highest I got was I think it was like 1,200 to 1,300 votes submitted. It was like some of the best content we put out not related to direct competition,” Godin said.

According to Godin, creating these competitions for social media really helped in boosting the university’s social media numbers across all platforms.

“From a statistical point, it was very interesting because we ended up doing better this past month than we did last year at the same time with sports happening. It’s almost as if, once we got past the necessity of having games happening, it allowed our creativity to open up and flow. We were able to engage our fan base a lot more uniquely, and it’s a breath of fresh air coming from social media platforms that it’s not just ‘Hey, it’s game day.’ It’s actually thought out, produced content. Fans are finding it refreshing too because we’re breaking the norm, essentially. We actually, in the last couple months, we’ve seen a boom in our social media interaction,” Godin said.

At the moment, the swimming and diving team will be UNCA’s only athletic team competing until at least Nov. 25, when the NCAA scheduled basketball teams to begin their seasons.

The Big South Conference announced earlier in the semester their decision to delay all fall sports to the spring, meaning there will be a highly congested schedule for UNCA’s livestream team due to all the sports competing at once. According to Yohe, he and his team will not be able to livestream all of the sports due to this congestion.

“It’s going to be some long days. With our contract with ESPN we would have to do every home basketball event, so that’s the only sport that’s going to take precedence over anything else, but after that I’m going to just have to see the schedule and just kind of divide it up evenly between the sports. Try to hit soccer multiple times in a row and volleyball multiple times in a row so I don’t have to move so much. But yeah, it’s going to be a lot going on,” Yohe said.

Any game that UNCA streams has been and will continue to air on ESPN+, one of ESPN’s subscription based live streaming services. Due to the uncertainty of fans being able to attend in the future, Jandrew said he continues to recommend Bulldogs fans to sign up for the service.

“We have been encouraging folks to sign up for ESPN+ because that may be the only way to watch our teams play, certainly in the short term, and maybe beyond. We just don’t know. It’s $50 for an annual subscription, $6 a month. What I keep telling folks is in addition to our events, obviously we want them to tune in to our events, they have access to an entire catalog of football, basketball, soccer, I mean it’s endless what’s on there,” Jandrew said.

Although there will be a congestion of games, Stradley said he looks forward to commentating again as long as the student-athletes will be safe.

“My biggest concern is the athlete’s safety and so as long as everything is looking good for them, the training and the preparation for the season isn’t too tough on them physically, I’ll work seven days a week, I don’t care. My voice will give out like it usually does probably about May and will be hoarse through the summer and then get ready to go again,” Stradley said.

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