'Creatives' fuel the cool behind college athletics branding

The pandemic first halted college sports and then fundamentally changed them. From the games to recruiting, there is no aspect of college athletics that hasn't been affected.

Among the folks whose importance has increased exponentially during this time are the so-called creatives in each athletic department. The folks tasked with branding their school and making their teams look, for lack of a better word, cool.

"It's been more important than ever for us to showcase who we are as a program, kind of give fans that feeling that they would get on game days," UNC's Matt Fedder said.

When coaches can't travel to spread the word about their program, they have to rely on messaging. That's where the creatives come in, and that's where coaches must cede some control.

"They really had no choice to let all of us have access to the players, but our coaches have been super open," NC State's Chanelle Smith-Walker said. "They've been letting us cover all we want, kind of having complete creative freedom."

While wins and losses are the ultimate branding tool, schools are now fully awake to the power of social media both from official accounts and from their athletes.

"The explosion of our industry is indicative of what's coming with name, image and likeness down the pike. It's coming right? it's imminent," said Selena Castillo, the creative director for Duke women's basketball. "I just think it's showing that more than ever, our student-athletes are owning what they want to put out there about themselves similar to a program doing the same."

While Fedder works for UNC, he also aims to serve the student-athletes.

"What we are trying to do as a creative program is really try to amplify their voice, help them be able to create a brand for themselves," Fedder said. "Some of them are content creators as much as they are players."

Getting those players to choose your school is the first challenge, of course. Creatives are essential to that process as well.

"Our recruits love our content, especially because a lot of stuff that we do, I feel like sometimes when you do recruiting stuff it can come off as corny, or cliché, so I feel like you're still trying to focus on still making it cool," Smith-Walker said. "But I think it does help that I am a Black creative so I'm able to tap into the Black culture a lot more in our recruiting content."

It can be an exhausting pursuit. Smith-Walker said there can be periods of burnout when her creative muscles aren't firing. Among rival schools, there is competition of a sort, but it's more about mutual respect.

"It's about supporting each other, amplifying other voices in the industry that may be underrepresented and really trying to let talent be showcased." Fedder said.

Castillo agreed.

"The competition is by no means malicious," she said. "It's more like I appreciate that I'm inspired by that."
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