Friday, December 27, 2013
Bowl games embrace social media
By Matt Fortuna
As last year's Russell Athletic Bowl regressed further and further, sending football back into a century-old time machine with Virginia Tech and Rutgers seemingly one-upping each other in the battle of the absurd, Matt Repchak initiated the event's mid-game heel turn. As digital media director for Florida Citrus Sports, and in charge of its bowls' Twitter accounts, Repchak delivered an online personality for those following along from home.
Where most saw the contest's 20 punts, game-ending missed field goal and 23 total points as bad football, Repchak saw opportunity.
A revelation of pre-planned bad weather here.
A shot at the New Jersey-based "The Sopranos" there.
And, after the Hokies' 13-10 overtime victory was complete, an edict to leave this beautiful little mess behind.
Followed, of course, by a not-so-subtle reminder that any and all additional attention would be more than welcomed.
Keeping the conversation going year-round about bowl games, especially of the non-BCS variety, is a tall order. But the recent social media wave championed by Repchak and others has done its part to add more elements in the weeks surrounding the games, and maybe even beyond.
"There's a lot of people that will follow a game just because it's the game that they're in, so we all get a big swell of fans the day that teams are announced, all the way up through game day, and then immediately when the game is over with they'll start dropping off," Repchak said. "No matter how good you are -- you can knock it out of the park for the entire month of December -- you're still going to start losing fans when the clock hits zero because we don't have a sticky fan base."
The annual Football Bowl Association meetings allow creative teams to pick each other's brains and come up with new gimmicks that can stick. This spring's gathering in Pasadena, Calif., the site of the VIZIO BCS National Championship game, presented Repchak an opportunity to touch base with Los Angeles Kings digital media manager Pat Donahue, who helps run the NHL team's now-infamous Twitter account. The Kings had also employed Dewayne Hankins, who has since taken the snark over to the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, drawing that franchise some viral attention with him now in charge as vice president of marketing and digital.
Figuring out what does and doesn't work can be a challenge. In the lead up to the 2011 Valero Alamo Bowl between Washington and Baylor, Rick Hill and his marketing and communications team tested a series of potential billboards to run, one of which said "Defense Optional." Fan reaction on Facebook suggested this would be offensive to the defensive staffs of each school. (Baylor ended up winning 67-56.)
"So we never ran it," Hill said, "but obviously 123 points later, it was 'defense optional.'"
The Chick-fil-A Bowl takes the initiative to promote its game year-round, a byproduct of sponsoring a number of college football-related events throughout the year. The Atlanta-based game struck gold last year with LSU's Les Miles and Clemson's Dabo Swinney as its coaches. Clemson's last-second win in the New Year's Eve game marked one of several notable Chick-fil-A victories for Swinney over the course of a year: His Tigers had also won the 2012 kickoff game over Auburn, he had won the closest-to-the-pin contest in a charity golf tournament the following spring and Clemson had taken home the Battle for Bowl Week belt, a WWE-style memento that came with beating LSU in some of the activities in the week leading up to the bowl game.
In June, the Chick-fil-A Bowl posted a picture on Facebook of Swinney holding hardware commemorating all four victories over the nearly eight-month span, drawing plenty of attention across several mediums through likes, shares and comments.
"Clemson Nation just ate that up, they loved it," Chick-fil-A Bowl vice president of communications Matt Garvery said. "And Dabo's a fun guy anyway. His personality kind of drove the whole thing."
Still, no coach -- or fake coach, for that matter -- has done more for the bowls' social push than Faux Pelini, the parody Twitter account of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. The account engaged in a spirited back and forth last year with the Capital One Bowl (also run by Florida Citrus Sports), hitting on everything from ugly reporters to Words With Friends to bicep sizes between Pelini and Georgia coach Mark Richt.
Sure enough, when the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl announced that the Cornhuskers and Bulldogs were bound for a rematch this postseason, the game wasted little time poking the bear on Twitter.
"Nebraska fans were kind of bugging the Gator Bowl, like, 'You guys got to talk to Faux Pelini, you can't just let this guy go unnoticed,'" Repchak said. "And finally the Gator Bowl rolled up their sleeves and was like, 'You know what, we're going to do it. We're going to have fun with it,' and kind of pushed us out of the way, which was great."
Repchak started taking on the comedic tone two years ago, when Champs Sports sponsored the first of his group's two bowls. He dished out "Seinfeld" references, made fun of Notre Dame's helmets and mocked Louisville coach Charlie Strong's blaming of a video game release for one of his team's losses.
Florida State beat Notre Dame in that year's game, a sloppy battle between underachieving powerhouses. The fact that the Irish and the Seminoles have made the national title game in the two years since has not been lost on the folks in Orlando, Fla.
"It hasn't been borne out this year with Rutgers and Virginia Tech, but I'd like to think that maybe we have some kind of magic that helps move people," Repchak quipped. "We have that touch. We brought them in. They got to enjoy the rise up before they get in all the BCS games."
But there remains a purpose behind getting fun again, and it is more than just exchanging pleasantries and jabs with other figures. It is to go where the fans are, to put a persona behind a faceless suit, with the possibility that the goodwill could be reciprocated sometime down the road.
"I don't want to get noted because of our social media account, but when people are talking about destinations and are talking about Orlando as a possible place for big games in the future," Repchak said, "whether it's a national championship or if we go and try to do a kickoff game or something like that, and people are more likely to think of us positively because of how we interacted with them, that's important to me as well."