By: Michael Ehrlich, @MichaelEhrlich
Every Saturday morning, college football fans officially kick off the weekend with ESPN College GameDay Built by The Home Depot, which in its 29 years has evolved into a cultural phenomenon.
As both a professional storyteller and passionate football fan, I continue to marvel at the power of GameDay and its transformation over the seasons. It isn’t just a pregame show anymore, but rather a powerful story platform that extends beyond football, crossing over to pop culture, music, food and even politics. ESPN College GameDay is its own brand and a breakthrough storytelling mechanism prime for activating.
Beyond the entertaining, award-winning and sometimes tear-jerking human-interest pieces, GameDay has become a rich and unique narrative platform for the host school. Program traditions and differentiators go a long way to building the university’s story on a national scale and giving viewers a first-hand look at what makes the university experience unique is essential to building their brand. The benefits of hosting GameDay go well beyond football and the savvy universities leverage the moment as a recruiting tool for their entire student body, not just potential athlete recruits.
However, the GameDay story telling mechanism isn’t only benefitting the host school anymore. The rise of social media as the premiere live event conversation vehicle empowers all programs, brands and fans to share their messages during the live broadcast.
“ESPN has a monopoly on Saturday mornings in the fall, which makes GameDay one of the most important parties to crash in college football,” according to Jeremy Darlow, author of Brands Win Championships. “It’s one of the quickest and cheapest ways to drive awareness and affect perception for your program. Football programs and brands featured on this show are legitimized, either more so than normal or for the first time.”
This party-crashing mentality has materialized in unique ways over the years – with the prime example being the now famous Washington State University flag – closing in on 200 consecutive GameDay appearances. Although the broadcast has not actually visited the Cougars’ campus in Pullman, the school’s presence in the form of a giant flag inserts the program into key on-air visuals each week.
For a program that isn’t a perennial contender, this easy tactic keeps them top of mind across the nation, with fans now expecting to see the Wazzu flag on TV each week. Just this past weekend, during the GameDay broadcast at their rival University of Washington’s campus in Seattle, at least 5 giant Washington State flags waved in the crowd, earning prime on-air placement and crashing the Huskies’ hosted party.
With the power of social media as a story telling mechanism growing, this season has offered fans and college athletes an even more influential platform during the GameDay broadcast. When GameDay visited Bristol Motor Speedway earlier this season, the most talked about moment did not relate to the historic host location or the matchup between Virginia Tech and Tennessee; rather, it was Venmo.
Thanks to GameDay attendee Sam Crowder and a disruptive sign featuring his Venmo account asking his mom for beer money, the mobile payment service earned premium on-air placement during the broadcast and a Tweet from @CollegeGameDay, sparking unprecedented social conversation and engagement.
The “Send Beer Money” message is not uncommon at sporting events, but never before had a specific Venmo account been featured prominently, garnering widespread momentum on social media with fans and media. Strangers from all over the country paid respect to this party crash by sending money to Sam (last reported at 2,000+ total donations) and the Venmo brand ultimately jumped into the conversation by Tweeting at him and sending $50 to the “cause,” a bargain for the social and editorial narrative throughout the day.
Venmo couldn't have paid for this level of PR and social conversation. Or maybe they did? A few reports questioned Crowder’s legitimacy but regardless of the organic authenticity the tactic to use a disruptive and unique sign to crash the GameDay party is one to clearly imitate for any storyteller.
A month later in Madison, Venmo ironically made another appearance on a popular GameDay sign, this time via Wisconsin basketball star Nigel Hayes, who used the moment to bring attention to a very controversial topic across the NCAA: paying college athletes. Hayes’ sign read, “Broke College Athlete. Anything Helps.” followed by a friend’s Venmo account handle.
Hayes told ESPN he wanted to, "create conversation" about college athlete compensation and that all funds would be donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County. Hayes’ party crash followed a series of Tweets from him the night before questioning the NCAA and Big Ten Conference’s financial treatment of student-athletes.
The combination of Hayes’ Tweets and GameDay sign reignited the conversation amongst national media—beyond those who tuned into the broadcast—creating a groundswell of editorial coverage and discussion about this polarizing topic.
As the on-field drama of college football continues the rest of the season and the playoff picture becomes more clear, pay close attention to GameDay broadcasts each Saturday to see who crashes the party, how social media ignites their narrative and which story ultimately breaks through.