When Buddy Overstreet started working for the University of Alabama athletic department in 2002, he was a student video editor who put together team highlights. By the time he left to start his own marketing firm in 2013, he was the creative director of Crimson Tide productions, the athletic department's in-house marketing production group.
The movement up the ladder wasn't just a testament to the work he did, but how quickly athletic departments have shifted their focus to marketing and branding their programs.
From Photoshopped pictures to flashy uniforms, rebranding athletic departments and strategicallyworded infographics, marketing has become a huge part of nearly every football program in the country.
Universities are now spending big money and hiring more marketing-related roles to spread their message and build their brand. A big reason for that shift is due to the competitive nature of recruiting.
"When I started doing graphics it was for recruiting because we had shifted our market to 15 to 18 year olds, not the donors. We flipped the marketing a little bit while we were at Alabama, and combine that with the winning and that made a tremendous impact on recruiting," Overstreet said. "Winning solves a lot of problems, but I think the initial drive to focus more on marketing to those students with how we integrate the photography and the types of messaging we used to those 15 to 18 year olds was essential to making Alabama relevant again in their minds."
Alabama started the shift in 2010, using TV commercials directed at recruits and focusing on the football programs during their spring game which was broadcast on ESPN.
Jeremy Darlow is head of brand and digital marketing at adidas for football and baseball, and has seen exactly what Overstreet saw in the different strategies employed by football programs.
"It's always about recruiting now. The first thing when we go in and present to a university, or if they come to us, it's always about improving the recruiting class the following year," Darlow said. "The better the athletes they bring in, the stats show, the more wins will come and then more money follows and the stronger the brand."
For Darlow, much of the conversation centers around what kind of new uniforms a team can sport the following year. And the goal is simple: exciting the recruits with the idea of playing for that school in that uniform.
"The biggest thing for me is to take that idea and drive it home in a broader way," Darlow said. "Every school has two or three alternate uniforms so it doesn't allow for a lot of differentiaton. When I go in there I'm looking for ways to bring their story to life in other ways to break through the clutter."
Surprisingly, the head coaches are typically very involved in that process and are becoming more and more involved with the overall marketing strategy.
Rich Rodriguez and director of player personnel Matt Dudek work hand in hand at Arizona with the marketing team and associate director of marketing Dan Heck.
Whether it's in-game music, team posters, billboards, or digital videos, the two sides see themselves as one team working towards a common goal.
"A lot of schools struggle with this where it's almost two competing entities instead of working together," Heck said. "That ends up hurting your brand a lot more because you have something out there that doesn't match what the athletic department is doing, or the message the coaches want out to recruits."
Heck and Dudek agree that everything the public sees can be, and should be, used as a recruiting tool. During games, communicate by headset to make sure the energy and flow of what's playing on the stadium speakers matches what's happening on the field.
The relationship the coaches and marketing department have at Arizona is the prime example how much emphasis there is to pumping up the brand and program to recruits. Darlow says that working relationship is starting to become the norm as he sees more and more coaches heavily involved in his meetings.
Overstreet and Darlow have varying opinions on what strategy is best for targeting recruits, but both agree staying true to the program's identity and brand is crucial to the success of using social media.
No matter the philosophy or strategy, it all boils down to the same thing. What can they do to land the next big recruit?
Hiring bigger staffs, employing people like Overstreet to head efforts that don't involve X's and O's and engaging in an arms race of who can create the next big viral campaign is now what it's all about.
"I think the general shift in the last five years has been to market and brand the teams based on the younger demographic. That seems like a broad and obvious change, but you'd be surprised if you looked at what teams were doing four and five years ago," Overstreet said. "I think the idea was that we have to appeal to the masses and now it's we need to appeal to recruits because these guys are going to help us win. More and more schools are figuring out that their marketing and branding is a big deal when it comes to recruiting."