There are several different approaches to building sports media brands, but there aren’t many cases where people will admit to deliberately taking a strategy that’s likely to see a short-term viewership loss. That’s something that Wave Sports + Entertainment (formerly WAVE.tv) did with their Jukes football channel earlier this year, though; while their accounts for that channel (particularly Instagram and TikTok) were showing steady follower growth under an older strategy largely focused on news of the day, they weren’t getting as much engagement in likes, comments, or shares as other WSE channels.
That prompted WSE to shift the channel’s focus to more original content, specifically by bringing in new voices Lucy Rohden and Kieran Hickey-Semple and also working with other creators. And while that led to a short-term hit in follower growth, it led to more engaged followers, and then resumed follower growth afterwards. And this is now looking like a wider strategy for WSE: Rohden (seen at right above) and Hickey-Semple (seen at left above) are amongst the new talent they’ve signed to deals, and they’re now building a new studio in Santa Monica to bolster their original content production. Recently, WSE executive vice president (content and strategy) Mack Sovereign spoke to AA about their Jukes pivot and their overall shift to emphasize original content, and said the Jukes case was an example where they thought emphasizing particular brand voices would pay off with deeper engagement.
“Our goal has always been to build the most engaged fan communities online. Engagement is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but for us, that means not just likes and views and passive metrics that we can accrue by having our videos served on the feeds people are scrolling, but deeper engagement, like comment rate, the amount of shares our content is getting, the clickthrough rate if we encourage our followers to go check us out on YouTube after a clip on Instagram. So that kind of engagement has always been the goal. …And the KPI [key performance indicators] have evolved, from just views and likes to deeper engagement metrics. That’s been very instrumental in informing our approach and expanding our engagement rates, and the growth rates that we’ve had.”
“And I think we had at least hypothesized that talent is a way to develop that deeper relationship with that audience, putting a face to the brand to really make it feel like there is a voice and a personality that is behind the page, and helping separate ourselves from the ocean of football information that gets shared online. And seeing the engagement that folks like Kieran and Lucy were driving on their own personal pages on TikTok, Instagram and other places, it made sense and felt like a really natural partnership to try to engage those folks, get them on our platform, help them keep doing what they do in terms of reaching people online.”
Sovereign said in football in particular, it was tough to stand out under a news-focused strategy given how many other outlets were doing that.
“The internet, it’s so competitive. The amount of voices contributing to football content online is basically endless. So what’s important for us, and important for any publisher, especially on social platforms, is to find your niche. What is it that you’re contributing to the football conversation? What value do we provide to our users that they can’t get anywhere else? I think in the early days of WAVE, and on Jukes specifically, we might have been more generalist in the information we were showing, we wanted to be really quick in sharing the news and information and getting this information to our followers. Which was great, but our followers could also get that information just by following, say, Adam Schefter.”
And he said Rohden and Hickey-Semple have done a great job of mixing humor, personality, and opinion with information, which has helped channel followers connect with their videos more than the previous content approach.
“They make our workplace a lot more fun. There’s a lot of football takes and hot takes and conversation flying around the office on any given day, which is exciting. Lucy in particular, she is a very talented emerging humorous voice in the football space. She is a diehard Iowa fan, and a diehard college football fan at large, and she spends her time when she’s not watching football doing things like hanging out in the Facebook groups of LSU fans who are working hard to figure out who their next coach is going to be. So she really integrates herself into the space and then uses that kind of intel to create very humorous takes. She has roasted my favorite team several times, anyone who follows her has suffered at the hands of her commentary, but in a very fun way.”
@jukesReply to @chatzky_ we got you 🤝 @lucysportsjokes♬ original sound – Jukes
“Kieran really stood out on TikTok for his kinds of quick takes and opinions, both on football and combat sports, where he’s a passionate fan. He took full advantage of the 60 seconds that TikTok initially allowed to be pretty bold and declarative, but also really informed in his approach to getting his opinions out there. His growth really skyrocketed quickly. So it’s the humor and the boldness of their opinions, but also the informative approach they take that makes them really stand out on our channels.”
@jukesShould Jonathan Taylor be a legit MVP candidate? @carebearkieran♬ original sound – Jukes
But the engagement focus goes beyond that, and also includes taking input from the audience on where to go next.
“We came up with a couple key tactics to help us stand out from the crowd. One of those is providing and eliciting opinion. One of the best features of social media is the interactivity it allows for; the comments section, Instagram stories with a poll feature, and countless other ways where the audience can directly contribute to the conversation. And then we can take that input and help it inform what we make next, or just put it back on the feed with “Here’s what you guys said” or “Here’s what half of our followers think, let’s discuss this a little more. We definitely want to be a destination for that. So having hosts, having talent on screen providing their opinion and soliciting [fans’ opinion], we think that’s a great way for us to stand out.”
…”It’s about finding ways for our audience to engage more deeply, creating experiences for our audience, whether that’s the survivor pool we created on Jukes for fans to come and compete week to week with our hosts or our page admins, or something like the #TailgateChronicles campaign we started to get people to showcase what’s going on in their corner of the football universe, those kinds of direct community conversations that take place outside of just the social feed.”
Sovereign said it’s also valuable for WSE’s channels to pick up on and amplify under-the-radar videos, and rights partner deals (like the one they signed with Top Rank for their Haymakers channel) are a piece of that puzzle.
“We work very hard to find video highlights and user-generated content that isn’t being shared widely, so that’s a lot of great work from our internal team here, sourcing videos, scouring the internet for it, and trying to find things that aren’t getting shared other places. But it also goes to the relationships we have with various rights partners who have deep archives of content. And they’re eager to have those clips and their sport connect with younger fans, and they trust us to do it. So it’s working hard not just to find great clips but hopefully put a spin on them, contextualize them in a way that’s hopefully more likely to go viral on a social feed or tell a great story. So great video is certainly one piece of it.”
And he said that ties in to their work with on-camera creatives like Hickey-Semple and Rohden, as part of the work there is providing them with access to data on what’s working well.
“It’s easy to talk about what the numbers are and figure out what the right data is, but access to data, I think, has been a key component of our success. By that I mean that we have a lot of creatives who might not think of themselves as data people and don’t spend a lot of time in spreadsheets, but we can make that data very accessible and clear and educate them on how to access this and how to understand it and make it really tangible for them. That’s led to some of the improvements we’ve seen. Connecting our creatives a little bit more to the data has been really instrumental for us.”
View this post on Instagram
Sovereign said WSE also tries to be intentional about what social platforms each of their channels focuses on, and what the best content for that particular platform looks like.
“I think it’s really important for any digital publisher to start by evaluating their goals on a per-platform basis. Why do they want to exist there? What does success look like there? Because that kind of intentionality, that will inform your approach and give your content the specificity and the purpose it needs to excel and stand out on social. So I would encourage other publishers, and we really try to do this ourselves, to think about ‘What does success for us look like on Instagram? Why are we here versus on TikTok?'”
“And from there, it’s crafting a really specific content approach, whether that’s leaning into image-based opportunities on Instagram or taking advantage of “Shorts” content on YouTube, which is a really exciting growth period on the platform. That sort of intentionality is really important, because that yields some of the platform-specific formatting, the little things that go into increasing your hit rate on any of those platforms.”
An interesting part of the Jukes approach too has been some videos shot around games, like this video Rohden did at an Iowa game, asking fans what team they’d kick out of college football if given the opportunity (language warning):
@jukesWhich team would you kick out of college football? @lucysportsjokes♬ original sound – Jukes
Content around games is appealing for WSE, with Sovereign saying that helps them emphasize the faces and voices of their channels, and stand out from competitors.
“Certainly we’re not going to be on the sideline with the Fox broadcast, or doing the highlights at halftime, but that’s only a very small component of the game. And people are going to be watching that on their TV, and not on the social platforms where we live. By putting folks like Lucy on the ground to interact with fans, to capture the gameday experience, that’s a huge part of what being a college football fan means. I think we can kind of complete a football fan’s viewing experience on a day of football by not only watching what happens in the stadium, but at the tailgate as well.”
“And there aren’t a lot of publishers outside of the broadcaster carrying the game that are going to have that presence on the ground. And there’s a very low barrier to entry to create content on platforms like TikTok, and it’s an area where we can tap into creators from around the world to quickly capture what’s going on around that gameday experience. I think that’s definitely a place you’ll see us continue to lean in.”