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Local Influencers, Content Creators Now Necessary Part of Sports Media Ecosystem

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Editor’s Note: JohnWallStreet is going to run on a Tues-Thurs schedule this week (and for the next few weeks). There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that is limiting our time writing. We’ll be returning to a Mon-Tues-Thurs schedule shortly after the Spring Sports and Media Huddle on April 18. Apologies for messing with your morning routine.

Local Influencers, Content Creators Now Necessary Part of Sports Media Ecosystem

Local influencers and content creators have become an important part of the sports media ecosystem. 

“They deliver the usual daily team nuggets on top of engaging, comical content,” Mario Prosperino (co-founder, SPAT Media) observed

And in a world where young fans are increasingly getting their news and information via social channels, these individuals often have greater reach and engagement with the target demo than traditional outlets.

Seton Hall University got ahead of the trend and began building out its local influencer program this past fall. The Big East school started with Barstool Sports personality Frank ‘The Tank’ Fleming, and the results were astounding.

Blinkfire Analytics reported that Fleming’s reaction to Seton Hall’s tournament snub on The Barstool Bracket Show was viewed more than 912,000 times on Barstool's Instagram account. The earned media value from that one video alone was worth $127,700.

For context, Seton Hall Men’s basketball social channels received 1.2 million video views across the entirety of the ‘23-’24 regular season. The program posted 918 times.


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Like most sports organizations, Seton Hall athletics has long welcomed celebrities to use its facilities or attend games (think: a musician playing the arena the next night). The hope is the goodwill spurs a photo op and/or social media post. 

But “influencers and content creators did not have a strategic role [with the program] in prior seasons,” Michael McBride (deputy athletics director for revenue generation, NIL, and strategic initiatives, Seton Hall University) said. 

That’s not uncommon. 

“College athletics has [historically] largely relied on paid media for reach,” McBride said. “Earned media may not even be part of some schools’ strategies.” 

The approach hasn’t been a whole lot more prevalent on the pro level, to date, either. 

However, sharp executives across the sports landscape are beginning to realize that “everyone has a role, and local influencers and content creators play a vital one in amplifying the messages that teams are trying to promote, and the narratives they are trying to create,” McBride said.

These individuals can also enhance the in-stadium fan experience when used properly (i.e. don’t just give them a jersey and stick them in a box). 

McBride proposed implementing a formal local influencer program at Seton Hall to grow the basketball program’s reach, and to drive fan engagement. 

Some athletics department would have shut the idea down. Influencer followings can be so large that it threatens to challenge the school’s stronghold on communications. And college athletics, in general, tends to be risk averse. 

“But in the private sector, risk and creative new ideas are rewarded,” McBride said. “I knew if we created mutually beneficial relationships [with influencers and content creators] that the positives would outweigh the challenges.”

Seton Hall green-lit the endeavor. 

Once approval was granted, the conversation turned to who the program should launch with. Fleming was a logical choice.

“It authenticates the relationship immediately if the [influencer or content creator] is a fan, alum, or grew up around the team,” McBride said.

The Barstool personality, known for wearing his fandom on his sleeve, is a long-time Hall supporter.

He also has a following that over-indexes as New Jersey-New York based college basketball fans.

Zoomph reported that Fleming’s followers had 4.6x the interest in college hoops, and were 2.0x more likely to be based in close proximity to the school, than those following popular New York celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Aaron Judge, Francisco Lindor, Daniel Jones, Colin Jost, Howard Stern, Billy Joel, and Casey Neistat.

Relevance outweighs reach with this strategy.

That’s not to say everyone was on board at the outset. Some opposed Fleming’s Barstool ties, others were aware of his seemingly combative relationship with the Mets and Devils and feared the worst. 

Common sense won out.

SHU started out slow, softly introducing Fleming to the fan base at a December game against UConn.

“That was well received,” McBride said.

So, the two sides began brainstorming ideas that would deepen the connection between team and local influencer, and spur potential content opportunities. 

“We [ended up initiating] a series of purposeful, unique in-game experiences –including [the creation of] Frank’s Tank, an exclusive student section under the basket– that showcased who he is, created positive energy around the program, and built momentum for the relationship,” McBride said.

Fleming also did a ‘Frank Walks’ with the Blue Army (the SHU student section) around the Prudential Center concourse prior to one game, and a courtside interview with head coach Shaheen Halloway following another.

The efforts paid off in spades, not only in terms of reaching Frank’s synergistic audience (Zoomph reports his Seton Hall content on Twitter/X did 2.3x more impressions and 2.8x the engagement of his typical post), but the broader Barstool fan base. Dave Portnoy, Dan ‘Big Cat’ Katz, Stu Feiner, Matthew Piper Jenks and Marty Mush were among the other Barstool personalities who engaged with Fleming’s Pirates-related content throughout the season.

“Their collective reach is huge, and the audience is a demographic that college athletics so desperately needs to connect with in a meaningful way,” McBride said.

Influential fans and local content creators can do more for a sports organization though than just deliver eyeballs and awareness. They can be useful in supplementing internal communications and PR efforts. 

“There’s a real opportunity for some of these individuals to be part of athletics’ overall marketing strategy in the future,” McBride said. “They’re going to have to be with how Gen Z consumes media.”

These influential fans can also serve as an organization’s inner voice. While SHU would never be publicly critical of the tournament committee for its controversial exclusion to leave the deserving team out of the field, folks like Frank –which remain an arm’s length from the school– can. 

And they did. In addition to Fleming’s widely viewed video, Barstool colleagues Stu Feiner and Jack Mac also posted digital content expressing how much of America feltthe Pirates deserved to be in. The team will play Georgia in the NIT semifinals tonight at 9:30pm EST.

Influential fans and content creators can play a role in revenue generation too.

Seton Hall has already engaged third parties interested in putting monetary value behind some of the programming it will produce with Fleming and other local influencers next year. And it’s not hard to envision the school doing merch collaborations or loaded tickets offerings with those individuals too (Frank has become known for his ‘Raw Dog’ hot dog eating segments).

Some might even be able to aid in raising NIL money.

“If a basketball program averages 10,000 fans/game, that’s nice reach. But when you add an influencer with millions of followers, [a crowd funding campaign of sorts] can be incredible,” McBride said.

Whether these relationships are paid tie-ups or are structured as content partnerships will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

A local influencer program cannot protect a team from criticism. The target demo would see right through it ruining the creator and partnership’s credibility. 

But the more a sports organization embraces fans with a platform, and treats them as the critical part of the ecosystem they are, the more it will get in return.

Influential fans and content creators do not have to work for a media company to have value. Anyone authentic to the community, with a large social presence and influence amongst the target demographic, can help.

Seton Hall’s proximity to the New York City is certainly advantageous. But sports teams in any market can adopt the approach.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a small town, you’re going to still have some connections and relationships,” McBride said. “It’s the [organization’s] responsibility to leverage them.”

It’s far too early to tell if there will be any peripheral benefits from Seton Hall’s relationship with Fleming and Barstool. That wasn’t part of the school’s conversation when it started down this path.

“But college athletics is the front porch of universities and if through men’s basketball [and local influencer marketing] we can grow awareness amongst a demographic the school desperately needs to reach for things like enrollment, then that’s just another win,” McBride said.

As those leading sports organizations come to realize a large percentage of fans are getting their news and information from local influencers, and the power those individuals hold, the Fleming’s of the world will increasingly be treated as legitimate media. 

That transition isn’t going to come at anyone’s expense (i.e. no established reporter is being swapped out).   

“But the individuals in sports, media, and marketing, if they don’t embrace [this strategy], they might get replaced,” McBride said.

Expect dedicated influencer relations roles to emerge across sports in the months and years ahead. It’s already starting to happen.

“It has to,” McBride said. “If an organization is spending tens of thousands of dollars on a highway billboard because of the marketing value that it presents, why not convert the money to these creatives and put a call to action and plan behind it that allows you to actually track the revenue that comes in off it.”

Disclosure: JohnWallStreet has been serving as an advisor to Seton Hall athletics since the start of the ’23-’24 men’s basketball season and facilitated the relationship with Fleming. Reach out to [email protected] to discuss implementing a local influencer strategy inside your organization.

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