University sports departments are used to building glitzy new stadiums, training facilities and even wellness centers to attract both athletes and fans. About a year ago, the University of Arkansas added a new kind of project to its list: a streaming platform called Hogs+.
The idea was to create a subscription service that would feature all kinds of new exclusive content about the university’s athletes and their lives, such as in-depth interviews, segments breaking down game film with star players and behind-the-scenes looks at teams before and after games. It costs $7.99 per month.
More than a year after the launch, Arkansas women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors says he notices that his players are being recognized around campus more often, the stands are a little more packed and local businesses are expressing interest in signing his players to endorsement deals.
“I’ll be out with our players and fans will say, ‘Hey, there’s that girl from Oklahoma.’ They don’t say what number she is or how she plays, they talk about their stuff that was only on Hogs+,” Neighbors said. “That’s never happened before.”
College sports are in an era in which every recruiting visit includes a photo shoot for social media and athletic departments employ graphic designers and hold weekly meetings to brainstorm memes. Hogs+ now gives Arkansas a home for new content it creates and the hope of generating new revenue.
This is a new battleground in the fight for the affection of both fans and recruits.
“You would almost become irrelevant if you’re not producing quality content and pushing that over a number of distribution platforms,” said Jeff Rubin, executive vice president at sports-marketing firm Learfield.
Arkansas launched Hogs+ in September 2021 in conjunction with Sport & Story, a multimedia company that builds subscription streaming apps. Sport & Story founder Bo Mattingly is also the host of a popular Razorback athletics podcast called “The Hog Pod, ” and has previously produced several all-access television miniseries on college football for HBO and ESPN.
“It’s sort of like when you watch the Olympics and you don’t know who you’re really watching, and they give you that three-minute story beforehand. And then you’re all in,” said Mattingly. “Schools didn’t have a way to tell the stories of their athletes.”
Sport & Story declined to share subscriber data for individual platforms, but said that Hogs+, along with four other subsequently launched streaming services at Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina and Mississippi State, have acquired more than 365,000 subscribers in the last 17 months. To the surprise of athletic director Hunter Yurachek, about 68% of the Hogs+ subscribers lived more than 100 miles away from Fayetteville, Ark.
It clued them into a growing trend in fan behavior: it may have been easy for fans and alumni who live outside of the local market to find football and basketball games on cable television or online, but it was much harder to follow Olympic sports like volleyball or gymnastics that are rapidly gaining popularity.
“Any feature or coverage that we give to an Olympic sport or a women’s sport is coverage that simply wouldn’t have happened before,” Mattingly said. “Not because [schools] don’t want to tell them, they just don’t have the resources.”
This was largely a function of the pandemic exacerbating already limited manpower within athletic departments and financial woes decimating local media coverage.
Arkansas officials found that the vast majority of people who signed up for Hogs+ were under 40 and had never previously engaged with the athletic department’s fundraising efforts. This was a swath of the fan base Arkansas didn’t know existed.
“That kind of blew us away, because we anticipated it being a lot of preaching to the choir,” said Arkansas associate athletic director for communications Kyle Parkinson. “The overwhelming majority was people we had no information on.”
In the spring of 2022, Hogs+ released an emotional segment with K.B. Sides, a softball player who became 2022 Southeastern Conference player of the year after transferring from Alabama. The 11-minute video generated 62,000 views and more than 350,000 social media impressions, and sparked interest in the Razorback softball team as it headed into postseason play.
The team sold out the 3,200-seat Bogle Park nine times—a program record—and hosted the best-attended NCAA softball regional and super regional in 2022. A car dealership near Little Rock, Ark., Everett Buick GMC, also signed the entire 27-woman team to an endorsement deal aimed at raising the visibility of women’s sports.
Neighbors said that such pieces had also become an effective recruiting tool at a time when players need to be shown what their brand potential is.
“If I can’t provide my current players with the content, then I’m not going to have future players,” he said.
Several other schools have now launched streaming platforms, including Louisiana State, South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Mississippi State and Maryland. Others, including Michigan, Texas Tech, Connecticut and Kansas, have partnered with Learfield for one-off episodic content for specific teams.
In the 13 months since Oklahoma State launched OSU Max in December 2021 for $8.99 per month, athletic director Chad Weiberg said that anecdotal evidence of its impact is strikingly similar to what happened at Arkansas. The women’s soccer team broke the season record for average home attendance this fall despite missing the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year. Women’s basketball ticket sales have grown. Football season ticket sales were up too, something Weiberg said is unusual in a year when the rivalry “Bedlam” game against Oklahoma takes place on the road.
To be sure, nothing impacts fan behavior more than winning. The pandemic also created pent up interest in live events that is only surfacing now that health concerns recede and attendance restrictions have been lifted. Still, Weiberg is convinced OSU Max is playing a role.
“The storytelling gives fans the ability to get to know the people and the individuals,” Weiberg said. “You see them from a distance on the field but there’s a much higher level of engagement that comes from getting to know the person.”
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2023, and written by Laine Higgins.
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