Guiding the Guide

Media guides these days are for the media in name only. Rather, they play an important role in your school's recruiting strategies. Is it time to revamp your approach?

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management and a former Sports Information Director at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Athletic Management, 14.3, April/May 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1403/guide.htm

Few terms in college athletics may be more outdated than "media guide." Once upon a time, media guides were produced solely for media use with no thought given to anyone but writers and broadcasters, but those types of publications have gone the way of set shots and drop kicks.

"When I was first in the business, they were looked at strictly as a media tool," says Steve Hurlbut, Athletic Director at Farleigh Dickinson University and a former sports information director. "It seems now that, unless it's for one of the premier media sports, the media guide has become primarily a recruiting tool--and hopefully enough information is in there to be helpful for whatever media does cover the team."

Despite an obvious change in the focus of media guides through the years, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. "Ask five athletic directors what percentage of the media guide should be for media and what percentage should be for recruiting and you'll probably get five different answers," Hurlbut says.

So what is the best strategy today for making your media guide an effective publication? Instead of simply doing what you've done every year in the past, or following what the other schools in your conference do, it may be time to re-examine your athletic program's particular needs.

For the Recruit?
An initial point to examine is: Do you need to produce a guide for the media anymore? For many schools, the answer is no.

At the University of California, San Diego, for example, limited media coverage has directly dictated the focus of its media guides. "We don't have a radio or TV contract and there is no beat writer assigned to our teams, so there's almost no call at all for guides from the media," says Bill Gannon, Assistant Athletic Director/Sports Information Director. "At our school, they're only five percent a media guide and primarily a recruiting tool."

St. Lawrence University, which sponsors Division I men's and women's ice hockey, along with 12 Division III sports, has taken the concept one step further. No media guides are produced, except for the hockey and football teams.

"What we do, instead, is a definite recruiting piece," says Wally Johnson, St. Lawrence Director of Athletic Media Relations. "It's three-fold 8 1/2 by 11 stock with both sides in full color and a tear-off return to send to the coach. Each sport gets its own. It highlights previous accomplishments and shows off our facilities a bit. Then admissions has a separate athletics and recreation piece that goes to every student, whether they're an athlete or not."

And St. Lawrence is far from alone in Division III. "This year, we did recruiting/media guides for 12 or so of our 21 sports," says Kennan Timm, Director of Sports Information at Wisconsin-Oshkosh. "In our situation, the school supplies 'X' number of dollars--usually $100-$150 per sport--and the coaches must come up with fund-raising dollars to pay the rest themselves if they want a brochure. Some coaches have seen better ways to spend their dollars, like on trips for the team."

At the Division I level, however, Hurlbut feels you need some type of recruiting piece for each sport. "I don't think many athletes make their decision [on where to attend college] based on a media guide," Hurlbut says. "But at the same time, you're dealing with 17 and 18 year olds, and you never know what's going to help them make their decision. If they're looking at three schools, and two of them have a media guide to hand them and the other says, 'We don't have one, but you can find out something about us on the Web,' the student may be turned off."

For those schools that do choose to publish true media guides, there needs be some thought given to how to make them effective recruiting pieces as well. This means working closely with those on the front lines of the recruiting wars.

"It's good for me when I sit with a coach and I get a sense of how important these publications really are," says Craig Hornberger, Publications Director for the University of Virginia athletic department. "Especially in football and men's and women's basketball, they want to show off the facilities as much as they can. Pictures are probably as important as anything in reaching out to student-athletes.

"Coaches also want a flashy cover and pictures that show off different aspects of the program like academic advising, players in the professional ranks, and our strength-training facilities," Hornberger continues. "That makes it easier for them to go over that material with prospective student-athletes and give them a taste of what it's going to be like when they get here."

Web of Change
Some recruits, however, may be attracted by what the program has on its Web site. And that's what Oakland University is counting on, as it has completely scrapped all its printed media guides, in favor of posting all information on its Web site.

So that coaches can hand something to recruits, each sport gets a four-color glossy folder with pictures of the school and the sport. The appropriate pages from the Web site are printed and put into the folders along with other campus information, such as admissions, financial aid, and housing.

"Everything that would have been in the media guide is on the Web," says Amy Hirschman, Oakland's Assistant Athletic Director for Communications. "We have some old-school people who are used to having something in hand, and I appease them by giving them copies that I've printed off myself."

The plusses are long-range cost and time savings. However there was considerable up-front labor and costs involved in moving all the information to the Web site. (See Sidebar, "The Oakland Experiment" at the end of this article for details.) Another drawback is that some prospective athletes may not be ready for this technology.

"We talked about it, but it didn't garner any significant support on our campus," Hurlbut says. "We think having something in hand is a valuable tool. And we feel there are a decent number of people who don't have computer access at home. If you have it at the high school, that's fine, but can you print out 54 pages for a baseball book, if you wanted all that information? And it will probably print in black and white, so the few color parts you get [under NCAA rules] won't be available."

Another emerging technology option is to produce individual CDs for recruits. At Oshkosh, the women's soccer coach and cross country and track and field coach have both produced a CD with video clips of the campus and tailor-made messages for prospective student-athletes.

"I'm not involved in creating these CDs," Timm says. "The coaches walk around with a digital camera and record the campus and facilities. They include highlights from competitions, there's a welcome from the coach, and the women's soccer coach even has the Chancellor say hello. I think that might create the mind-set for a recruit that, 'They really do want me if they take the time to have my name mentioned by nine different people of high authority.'

"And then there's the cost," Timm continues. "The brochures can cost over $1,000, but you can buy a blank CD for 35 cents and mail it for another 70."

Call In a Specialist?
At major Division I schools, getting rid of media guides is out of the question. They are more important than ever for both the media and recruiting, but appealing to both audiences is the tricky part. In response, some schools are opting to have publication specialists handle them.

"The sports information people have to worry about their relations with the media, setting up interviews, and preparing releases," says Joe Swan, Publications Coordinator for the West Virginia University athletic department. "Then they have to turn around and worry about producing a book on top of that? If you have the SID concentrating on both of those, you're putting them in a time-crunch situation."

"The jobs of SID and publications director are so time consuming, especially now with more elaborate publications," Hornberger says, "that I think it's almost an unreal expectation to think that an SID can do both jobs and do them well."

As a publications director, Hornberger oversees the scheduling and production of all the department's 18 media guides and most of the other publications produced by the school's athletic media relations department. He is most directly involved in the production of the football and men's basketball books, but coordinates work on all the others. Included in his duties are working with photographers, procuring printing services, writing, layout, and design.

Many schools have relied on technology to help them meet the demand of a constant publication schedule, but Hornberger points out that high-tech equipment and cutting-edge software alone can't produce top-flight media guides. "Desktop publishing programs are expensive and powerful design tools," he adds, "but to get the most out of them it's important to make sure the right people are using them--the tools alone won't make somebody a good designer. You want to make sure you have skilled people who have some graphic design abilities."

He also feels it's important for publication specialists to operate as part of the sports information department, regardless of title or lines on an organizational chart. "There's a need for a lot of collaboration and cooperation, and I rely heavily on the other people in the office," Hornberger says. "I truly see myself as part of the athletic media relations office, but I'm not looking to be an SID. Publishing is what I like and I'm doing what I enjoy."

Pete Moore, Associate Director for Athletic Communications at Syracuse University and President of the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), sees some drawbacks, however, to the use of specialists. "It works well at some schools, but it might not be a good function at others," he says. "A lot depends on the philosophy of the director. Since we're all doing desktop publishing here and we're assigned specific sports, each person in the department is most knowledgeable about his or her sport. Therefore, it makes the most sense for them to do that publication.

"It's a real challenge to have only one or two people working on publications," he continues. "If I were an SID or AD and I had the opportunity to add people, I would add them in sports information, but not with publication-only responsibilities."

Another option is to outsource some of the work on the media guides. West Virginia, for example, has an outside agency produce its football and men's basketball books, with Swan closely overseeing the process.
"The most important thing is to make sure they are aware of what's needed and when," Swan says. "It's such a time-sensitive piece of material that every minute counts, and sometimes you run into people who might not understand that kind of schedule."

Smaller schools can check out using on-campus resources. At St. Lawrence, for example, the copy and pictures for their Division III color recruiting pieces are supplied by the sports information office, but the production is handled though the school's public relations and admissions offices with the help of an outside designer. The sports information office produces the department's three media guides itself.

The AD's Role
Sports information directors are used to putting on their own show, but with all the changes in today's media guides, it is important for athletic directors to give them some direction. This means providing some strategic planning for the media guides and pushing sports information personnel to use technology to its best advantages.

But it also means giving them the support they need, ranging from checking in on workload to providing updated computer equipment. "If you don't stay current with the computer equipment, you're really burdening the SID with loads of unnecessary work and possibly costing yourself a lot of time and money," Gannon says. "It's somewhat expensive to stay on top of, but it's critical."

Sometimes it's easy to take for granted the work done by the sports information office, especially if all has gone smoothly year after year. Hurlbut has seen some change in the way sports information directors are viewed since he was in the field and emphasizes the importance of their position.

"The need to hire competent and professional people in that position, and give them the resources they need, is very important and should be looked at as importantly as hiring a coach for your program." Hurlbut says. "I think there's been a general impression in the last decade that the position has evolved from a stats person to a public relations professional who can be one of your biggest allies, and that person needs to be treated as a member of the professional staff."


Sidebar:
The Oakland Experiment

When sports information directors hear that Oakland University has done away with all printed media guides, their first reaction is often one of envy. After all, imagine all the time and money saved by not having to wrestle with a full schedule of publications throughout the year.

But Oakland University Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Amy Hirschman says the time and cost savings are less than people might think. "The first year we did it, there was a lot more work because we had to convert everything for the Web, such as year-by-year results in basketball," she explains. "So that summer we had to input 35 years of information.

"Now it's much easier because all we're doing is adding one year's worth of information. But we're still writing all the outlooks, bios, records, and recaps we would have done for the media guides. We're just doing them in a different format.

"We've saved quite a bit of money," she continues, "but we're also doing glossy color folders for recruiting. Although they don't have all the pages of a media guide, they're still expensive. The costs are less, but it's not like I'm saving $20,000 in my account every year."

If there are only limited savings in time and money, why would Oakland break step with the rest of the collegiate athletic world? "The idea actually came from my athletic director, Jack Mehl" Hirschman says. "I originally thought we would do both the printed media guides and the Web versions. But our president is very advanced and he wants the school to go a step ahead."

The daughter of CoSIDA Hall of Famer Fred Stabley, Hirschman considers herself an old-school SID and admits she was skeptical of the idea at first. Since making the switch, though, she's found deadlines are less of an issue since she can wait for rosters to be finalized for fall sports, and include more pictures and information on incoming student-athletes. In addition, roster changes can easily be accommodated as players leave or join a team during the season.

"I've learned to change my ways," she says. "It was kind of hard for me grasp the concept, but I learned it can work. It's different, but it's a good thing and it can benefit Oakland University.

"I haven't seen any negative impact," she adds. "Some of our coaches complain they don't compare with anybody now since we're different. But everybody tells me that they haven't seen anybody lose a recruit because they didn't have a media guide."

Hirschman stresses the importance of department leadership before making a change of this magnitude. "If it was just my office pushing for it, things might have been different," she says. "But coaches have been receptive to the change because the athletic director is such a big proponent of it. It's kind of the law right now. We're giving it our best and we have no plans to go back."

The Oakland University athletic department Web site can be viewed at www.ougrizzlies.com.