Connecting and Storytelling, the Journey of Brian Wagner

By: Amari Dryden, @Amari_Dryden

Brian Wagner, Digital Strategy and Creative Lead for University of Michigan Athletics

Brian Wagner, Digital Strategy and Creative Lead for University of Michigan Athletics

Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Brian Wagner, Digital Strategy and Creative Lead for University of Michigan Athletics. Brian worked for the University of Southern California’s football team as a student, and most recently worked with the University of Washington athletic department. After having eventful undergraduate years in the realm of collegiate athletics, he went on to combine his love of sports with his skills in digital media. He was gracious enough to offer up his wisdom about storytelling with digital media and how to connect a department with its fans, and his philosophy that something good is always about to happen.

What has your journey been like going from a graduate of the University of Southern California to now being the Digital Strategy and Creative Lead at the University of Michigan?

I went to USC for undergrad and got into some great activities there. I ended up working with the football team and got connected with Pete Carroll. When I graduated, I got the chance to work for a company called Win Forever, which was founded by Pete Carroll. It was based off of his life and coaching philosophy of always competing and being the best you can be. I had the great opportunity to be in a world where I was passionate about the mission and where I managed the digital aspects such as the website and social media. We got to travel a bit and meet some great people. It was a great job for me right out of school to have the chance to take the reins of something and make it my own.

After a couple years there, I got the chance to go to the University of Washington. It was a crazy adventure for me. I went up with my now wife, Annie. We didn’t have any family in Seattle but I thought it was a great opportunity for my career -- which it absolutely was. It was such a fun journey to again be a part of a program.

Now I’ve been given the chance to come out here to Michigan; it’s another amazing adventure for me. My wife and I moved out here about a month ago. We’re getting settled in Ann Arbor.  We’ve never lived out in this region. We do have family in the Midwest but it’s definitely a new journey and adventure for us. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be at wonderful institutions filled with amazing student-athletes, alumni and mentors along the way. I’m passionate about discovery and new things so each step in my career has offered me the chance to continue to learn more, have experiences and be open-minded.

As you start your new position at Michigan, what is the transition like going from one job to another?

In some ways, it’s a strange feeling and in other ways, it’s kind of the same. Moving across the country can certainly be stressful because of the huge change of scenery. However, in my role it’s still similar because it’s about creating unique opportunities to tell stories of our student-athletes, coaches and staff and connecting this entire unit to our fans. That was kind of the same when I was working at USC, WinForever, Washington and now here at Michigan. It’s very exciting. My two passions in life other than my family are sports and the digital media world. To be able to combine those two for my career is a dream come true.

Based on your LinkedIn profile, you were involved in a lot of sports activities in college. How did those experiences help you progress to the jobs you have outside of college?

I really made an effort to try many but important and long-lasting activities during my time at USC. It started my freshman year. I was an intern for the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. At that point I realized working in sports is where I wanted to go. I did a ticket sales internship with the Galaxy. Out of the ten interns for the semester, nine were juniors and seniors and I was the only freshman. I wanted to get my foot in the door and continue to learn while I was studying.

Each of those experiences helped me get where I am today, especially being the head manager of the USC football team and being the president of the Sports Business Association on campus. Those roles gave me a great leadership opportunity to lead teams of more than ten people.

At the Sports Business Association, I got to learn new contacts. Being in Los Angeles, there are many high-profile sports business pros and professional teams to work with so we got to do some really interesting things there for the students. In addition, being a part of the football team was the coolest experience by far in my life. Being embedded in that program -- being on the practice field every day, traveling with the team and becoming so close with the coaches and players -- was unbelievable. We had a team of twelve student managers and I got close with all of them. Each year was a little different group but those are friendships I’ll have for a lifetime.

What inspired you to work in the sports business profession?

I’ve been fascinated with sports all my life. I was born in Midland/Odessa, Texas, which is a small town in west Texas that was actually the birthplace of “Friday Night Lights,” the book, movie and television show. I was born in August of the season that was covered in the book and eventually the movie. I went to a few of those games when I was only a few weeks old. I obviously don’t remember any of that but I like to joke saying that was my birthright into sports.

My dad helped me grow into it, playing a variety of sports and being a fan, but it wasn’t until my freshman year at USC that I realized I would love to work in the sports business realm.  I think before then I never realized that could be a possibility. During my time as a student manager with the football team, I decided sports and digital media would be my career. That was around when Twitter was starting to become popular so teams were becoming involved in social media.

In 2008, I created a blog that documented stories and photos of behind-the-scenes coverage of USC football from our unique perspective. I would get home, do homework and then post a picture of practice or a picture of us setting up the locker room before a game on my blog. I started doing that as a hobby and as a way to chronicle the unique adventure I was having.  I quickly realized there was a huge appetite for this kind of coverage. It clicked at that point. If I can get into sports and work in social and digital media, then I’ll be set.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

Connecting and storytelling are my two favorite aspects. It’s such a thrill to be a part of unique brands with amazing traditions like USC, Washington and Michigan. What’s so fun about it from my perspective is sharing the stories we come across with fans and alumni. Now being a part of a team like Michigan Athletics, it’s a great feeling to see the love and passion people have for this team and all that comes back to connecting and storytelling. If you can capture content that people will love, that gets me going.

What about digital media appeals to you most?

Connecting people is what is so cool about digital media. Personally, I’ve been on Twitter for about six and a half years now. It’s been a great avenue for me to develop my personal brand. Many great Twitter relationships have turned into me meeting new people in real life, which is always fascinating and fun. I love being in this #SMSports world where we always are connecting to other colleagues and people around our industry for ideas. That’s a quality that Twitter and digital media can allow from a personal standpoint.

If you’re purposeful and use social media the right way, there are so many benefits that can come out of it, such as learning new ideas from those industry leaders, promoting your team’s content and reading news.

Professionally, we live in a world now where brands are starting to become their own storytellers, which is a continually evolving process -- it’s on us to share our story. There are countless ways to share our stories from our perspective through digital media which is very cool.

What are some of the challenges working in digital media?

One of the bigger challenges is having to stay on top of it 24/7 365 days a year. It can be a bit taxing to be “on” all day long, at night, on weekends and even when you’re on vacation. There’s always something going on in college athletics, especially in digital media. That world doesn’t sleep. It’s nice to take a break and unplug when you can, but that is definitely a challenge when you’re in a role like that. It’s a super-fast-paced world. It’s an incredible feeling to be working in sports and digital media, but it’s certainly a challenge.

In some departments in all industries, it’s always evolving no matter where you are in development, even if you’re not in athletics—the way you do your job is always evolving. The way digital media professionals are doing their job is constantly evolving at a fast pace. Not only working in college athletics -- where things are coming at you left and right and there’s so much to balance and organize -- the actual work you do is changing. There are new tools, better ways to connect with people, better ways to do your job. If you wrote a book two years ago about how you do your job, it’s not as relevant today.

To sum up, the two challenges in digital media are being “on” and staying connected to people 24/7 365 days a year and the fact that our actual duties in digital media are changing at a super rapid pace -- probably one of the more fast-paced industries there is.

Parting wisdom?

Success is a really relative term.  But, I think to be “successful” in this industry, you have to work incredibly hard. This industry is not 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. You have to be willing to go the extra mile, work a lot of hours, get in early, stay late, work weekends. I usually get in the office at seven in the morning and usually don’t leave until six or seven at night. That’s not even counting the events we work. You definitely have to go the extra mile in that realm.

I also believe this industry is full of passionate people which is an important attribute if you want to break into a job in sports business. I think those go hand in hand.  If you aren’t passionate about your work, it’s going to be very hard to go the extra mile and work off hours but I think that’s why the people in sports stay. It’s because they’re passionate about what they do.

I’ve always been a big believer in short-term and long-term goals. Whether you’re a student or recent grad or veteran, goals keep you on track and help you compete to be the best person and employee possible. There’s a quote from Pete Carroll that says, “Something good is just about to happen.” In my mindset and outlook for my career, I don’t say I need to be working at a certain place in a certain amount of time, but I’m convinced that something good is about to happen.

If you work really hard, are passionate at your job, are nice to the people you work with, why would you have any doubt that something good is about to happen, which is the philosophy I’ve carried out through my life.

We would like to thank Brian for his time and insight and we wish him the best in all his future endeavors!

You can follow him on Twitter here, or connect with him on LinkedIn here!

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