By Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.
Athletic Management, 15.6, October/November 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1506/adayinthelife.htm
Many athletic directors lament the media’s portrayal of today’s student-athletes. Arrests, academic fraud, big egos, and poor sportsmanship nab the headlines. So how can you show the public that the vast majority of your student-athletes are exemplary, positive individuals?
On-line diaries are one great answer. “Too many times, people hear stories about a student-athlete who does something bad, and they don’t hear about the thousands upon thousands of students who just happen to be very good at their sport,” says Ross French, Director of Athletics Media Relations at the University of California-Riverside. “Student-athlete diaries can help change people’s perceptions of athletes. We post stories about students who are working their tails off every day to live their dream and who represent this university extremely well.”
At some schools, several teams post diaries, while at others there is just one diarist per season. Some teams have the same athlete write weekly diaries throughout the season, and some allow several athletes from the team to take turns writing the entries. Whatever options you choose, student-athlete diaries take relatively little time and energy from a sports information department and provide a bushel full of benefits.
WHY DO IT?
Along with giving fans a positive picture of your athletic program, on-line diaries can provide them with a peek at what makes your school unique. “These diaries give people an idea of what the college experience at Riverside is all about,” says French. “You could read diaries at four or five different schools, and from seeing what their students write, you can get a perspective on what makes each of those schools distinct.”
Another important audience is potential student-athletes, who are eager to find out as much as they can about your school and its athletes. Cyber-windows into the lives of your student-athletes can be an effective recruiting tool. “Recruits are looking to our Web site to find out what it’s like at Emory,” says John Arenberg, Sports Information Director at Emory University. “They want to know what the players are like, what the teams are like, what the coaches are like. So we’ve tried to anticipate their questions, and use the diaries as one way to provide answers.”
Last year, Towson University Athletic Media Relations Director Peter Schlehr used diaries to highlight the field hockey team’s European tour. “Every day a different student-athlete sent back a one-page diary,” he says. “That way, high school juniors and seniors thinking about Towson can see that we travel, which is a great selling point.”
THE RIGHT WRITER
To reap these benefits, you must first find potential diarists. French starts by addressing all of UC-Riverside’s student-athletes during the department’s introductory meeting. He talks about the success of past diaries, the need for new writers, and the importance of properly representing the university. Then he asks for volunteers.
The key, says French, is honestly describing the position and being careful not to underestimate the difficulty of writing a diary. “Writing diaries takes time, and it’s important to let your athletes know that before they agree to do it,” he says. “Even though they may do it only once or twice a month, it may take two or three hours to compose something about themselves. They need to understand that before they make a commitment.”
At Stanford University, Bob Vazquez, Media Relations Director, approaches potential writers directly, choosing star athletes who have already piqued the public’s interest. “We focus on the blue-chip athletes, because they’re the ones people are going to be interested in reading about, and we know they’re going to represent Stanford in a positive way,” says Vazquez. “They’re flattered that we’ve asked them to do it, and they’re excited to be on our Web site.”
At the University of California-Santa Barbara, Bill Mahoney, Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations, asks coaches to recommend two or three student-athletes as potential Web diarists, and then makes sure to look for warning signs during initial conversations with them. “If the student-athlete sounds lukewarm when you first ask them, don’t have them do it,” Mahoney says. “If they’re lukewarm at the start, they won’t follow through with it.”
At Emory, Arenberg also enlists coaches to recommend diary writers, explaining the importance of finding a writer who can speak for their program. “The diaries hold up a mirror to the team,” he says. “They reflect what the coach is doing and show how the coach sets the tone for the entire team. It’s not that the coaches are influencing the diary entries—it’s that the diaries are reflecting the coach’s style.”
To help his coaches find the right person for the job, Arenberg gives them a set of guidelines. He prefers sophomores and juniors, who have been in the program long enough to describe the team to others, and avoids seniors, who have too many other things on their minds. He prefers having two authors for each team, so the two can rotate from week to week and share the responsibility. Their major doesn’t matter, as long as they have some writing ability and understand the concept behind the diary.
According to French, who asks Riverside coaches for leads to potential writers if he has trouble finding volunteers, all this upfront work to find the right diarist is critical, because the diarist’s ability to articulate his or her thoughts on paper will make or break the effort. “If you don’t have a quality writer, there’s really no point in publishing the diary,” he says. “If the diary is boring, people aren’t going to care enough to read the next column. But if the student-athlete writes something interesting, it’s going to hook people like a good novel.”
Once his line-up is set, Arenberg sends instructions to his writers, encouraging them to fill their diaries with amusing anecdotes and to think of ways to paint a picture for their readers. A typical entry talks about travelling on the team bus, passing time in the hotel before a night game, and eating pizza in celebration after a victory.
“My instructions to our writers are, ‘Tell us what happens before the games and after the games,’” he says. “‘Talk about the friendships and the social situations. Take us behind the scenes.’
“I ask them to give us the flavor of what it’s like to be a student-athlete here at Emory,” he continues. “What is it like to get up at five in the morning for swim practice? What is it like when you’re getting to the end of a long cross country run? What goes on in your mind?”
At UC-Riverside, diary entries deal more with the challenge of play and the process of getting in shape for a competition, but the strategy is the same: French wants his writers to paint a picture of their lives at school and on the road. “I want readers to say, ‘Oh, so that’s what it’s like,’” he says.
Over the course of a season, Arenberg corresponds regularly with his diary writers, providing support, direction, and the sense that they have an audience that cares about their columns. “When there’s something that’s particularly good, I will compliment the writer. In other cases, I might counsel somebody whom I’m trying to pull out of their shell,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Give me a little more information. Tell me more about what you were thinking. Give me more detail.’”
French reminds his athletes that they’re communicating with people who don’t share their world, and they shouldn’t spare the obvious. “A student-athlete might leave out some little detail because it’s part of their routine, so they don’t think twice about it,” he says. “But for the reader it might be interesting. People want to hear about the big things, like ‘What’s it like to be a senior in college? What’s it like to play golf at the college level? But they want to know about the little things too, like ‘I had to go to study hall for two hours, then go to class, then go to practice.’”
French believes it’s also important for the diarists to feel a sense of freedom, and encourages them to write about what they like. “I don’t want to tell them what to write,” says French. “I want them to write whatever they feel comfortable writing. Otherwise, it won’t feel like their column.”
Vazquez agrees, and allows Stanford student-athletes to write about whatever they want. “We don’t place any real restrictions on what they can say in these diaries, and the athletes are smart enough to keep things in good taste,” he says. “Our student-athletes have opinions about the important issues we face today, and it is fine if they want to share them.”
The amount of editing sports information directors do with the diaries varies from school to school, based on the philosophy behind the project. At Emory, Arenberg gives his writers a Sunday deadline and spends about two hours on Monday morning editing the diaries before they’re uploaded to the Web site.
Arenberg feels his time is worth the effort since a good student-athlete diary can keep readers returning to the Web site, and a bad one can cause more trouble than it’s worth, representing the program in all the wrong ways.
“I regularly edit the diaries, mostly for clarity,” says Arenberg. “Sometimes the writers use jargon or acronyms, which I spell out a little more clearly. Sometimes, they use informal references, which I change to more formal references. I correct spelling mistakes, which don’t happen very often, because they would reflect poorly on us as a prestigious academic institution.
“I also edit to make sure we’re not creating the kind of material you’d find on a Web bulletin board,” he continues. “Obviously, we don’t want raunchy humor or inside jokes that require a lengthy explanation. And in their enthusiasm, our student-athletes will sometimes use words such as ‘destroyed,’ ‘killed,’ or ‘kicked their bleep,’ which I’ll tone down to more sportsmanlike comments.”
French, on the other hand, proofreads more than edits. “I prefer not to edit the diary entries too much, because then it stops being their diary and starts being my version of their diary,” he says. “Unless it’s something that is really sticky, I’ll keep it the way it was written.”
When judging the success of a Web diary, numbers can tell part of the story. At UC-Santa Barbara, Mahoney has easy access to his Web site statistics, which he uses to chart the number of hits for each page. Over the years, the responses have varied widely. Some of the less-compelling entries received 300 to 400 hits, while the most popular ones—twice-weekly columns by basketball star Kayte Christensen—received as many as 6,000 hits in just a few days.
“I was stunned to see those numbers,” says Mahoney. “But she is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read, and we’ve built a strong community base, which is where most of those hits came from.”
At other schools, where statistics are harder to find, evidence of success is mostly anecdotal. Arenberg knows that fans from other schools surf his diaries, because he’s seen their emails. Vazquez knows that people in the community are reading his student-athlete diaries, because they’ve personally told him so.
Deeper questions are much harder to answer: Are student-athlete diaries actually drawing more readers to their college Web sites? Are they drawing more fan support? Are they raising the college’s profile for potential recruits?
At Emory, Arenberg is convinced that student-athlete diaries are well worth the effort, even if he can’t measure the results. “We’re trying to sell Emory to prospective students, and these Web diaries are an easy way to present ourselves without having to resort to expensive mass mailings,” he says. “It’s not the only tool we have, but it’s part of a package that helps us effectively communicate what Emory athletics is all about.”
“Maybe reading a column on the Web site grows into someone coming to a sporting event here,” says French. “We can’t know for certain how much correlation there is, but I’m sure there’s some. At the very least, we’re putting the word out and showing people something about our school and our student-athletes that they didn’t already know.”
At UC-Riverside, the diaries have had a few unexpected results. “There’s been a friendly rivalry between the men’s and women’s golf teams, so the diary [written by women’s golfer Kim Feliciano] sent out some challenges to the men,” says French. “There were some zings, but when the men did well, she made sure to give them their props. It’s heightened the competition in a positive way, and brought awareness to both the men’s and women’s teams.”
Feliciano’s diary also helped Riverside get media coverage, as the diaries attracted the attention of a sports writer at the Los Angeles Times, who wrote a feature story on Feliciano. That article was read by an editor at a local television station, which then ran its own segment about Feliciano and her diary.
“Those two stories were our biggest benefits,” says French. “In the past, our games had been covered in the Los Angeles Times, and we’d had our scores read on television. But until we started running the diary, we hadn’t had a feature done. Now that we have, it’s opened the door for us at two of the largest media outlets in our area. And it would never have happened without the diary.”
Web diaries are mostly aimed at fans, prospective students, and the media, but they have the added benefit of communicating with student-athletes’ parents.
“College-aged children don’t always volunteer much information to their families, so parents don’t have much of an idea what their sons and daughters are doing,” says John Arenberg, Sports Information Director at Emory University. “With the Web diaries, we can offer the parents information that they can’t get any other way.
“When our athletes went to Australia, they sent back a diary entry every day, and the parents absolutely loved it,” he continues. “They all went dashing to the Web pages to see what the team was doing. And I know that because the parents told me.”
Arenberg also compiles all the Web diaries into a yearbook, which he sends home to parents at the end of the season. “We want to help parents keep in touch with their children, who we know may not always be forthcoming with information,” he says.