CFP National Championship 2021: Ohio State Digital Team Tells the Story of the Buckeyes’ March to Miami
The program’s social channels focus on being more than an athlete
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and while Ohio State certainly did that to Clemson in the College Football Playoff (CFP) Semifinal, the matchup in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day is only a sliver of the team’s full journey. Like many in the United States, the real book of 2020 began back in March at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. What unfolded in the following months has been a story about teamwork, community, reality, and sacrifice.
For Ohio State’s digital team, led by Director of Creative Media & Post Production Zach Swartz, they followed their student athletes from the narrative’s introduction at the start of conference play to its conclusion at tonight’s CFP National Championship. In a year that illustrated that there are other conversations greater than football, the program’s social media platforms have become a time capsule and a collage of what the players have done away from the gridiron.
Before diving heavy into showcasing the personality of the players, the program was in the midst of a social media rebrand. In an attempt to capture the attention of prospective recruits and fans alike, the transition was geared towards increasing interactivity and traffic on all of their channels.
“We really had already tried to revamp our social strategy this year,” he says. “In what we call our Platforms Program, we work with our student athletes and promote their platforms to show what they’re doing off of the field and who they are as people.”
The Platforms Program, spearheaded by Director of Creative Design and Branding Chris Charizopoulos, is giving extra exposure to well-known personas like quarterback Justin Fields as well as lesser-known characters like wide receiver Chris Olave. It also helped bring players into the Buckeyes family like running back Trey Sermon, who joined after transferring from the University of Oklahoma. This also includes digital content, created by Assistant Director of Design and Branding Cory Wonderly, for players who signed their National Letter of Intent to the university:
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Despite this new project, the staff ran into a wall since athletes were away from campus. To sidestep this obstacle, player-generated content and throwback material were essential to maintaining their audience.
“If a guy was at home working out, we weren’t allowed to promote any non-official activity,” adds Swartz. “We did a Black Lives Matter video where guys sent in videos and spoke their mind and a lot of throwback stuff where guys broke down plays from the previous season on Zoom. During a normal year we’re in the building with them and have really good access, but we had to be creative to figure out ways to still show what they’re doing while following guidelines.”
As the early stages of the pandemic raged on, Swartz and company were able to capture the community’s passion and love for the Buckeyes in a single three-and-a-half-minute video that would ignite a season-long trend.
“We had a theme of plural nouns,” he admits. “Our first video, ‘Places’, came out in April and was really popular with our fans. It was a call to acknowledge that we’re not in the same place right now, but it was also a hopeful video that promised we will be back together soon. Another called ‘Changes’ from August that was a summary of everything that we’d gone through, including social justice issues and all the sacrifices that the players and coaches had to make to get to where we are.”
Nine days prior to the team’s first game vs. Nebraska, the digital team released the first of three long-form episodes in their miniseries dubbed “Voices” that would get fans excited for the year and address personal topics.
“We had a lot of short-form content that was our bread and butter throughout the year, but we really tried to let our players speak as candidly as possible about what they were going through,” he continues.
When play did return in the abbreviated regular season, the team was hit with its fair share of staffing issues. In year’s past, a group of four to five individuals would be on the field, but during the four games played in the Horseshoe in Columbus, OH this year, the number was reduced to only two onfield videographers and one onfield photographer. The staff became even smaller when a full-time position was cut, and another full-time staffer was placed in the stands to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions. The crew continued to exercise creativity to responsibly work around these protocols by multitasking.
“I have a Sony α7S that sits on the bench, and if we score a touchdown, I put my Sony PWS-FS7 down in the end zone and run over to the bench to grab that other camera and get a reaction shot,” says Swartz. “If we had a break, our one photographer would run over to drop photos into a Dropbox and somebody up in the booth or back at home would download, edit, and post them.”
Although there have been a ton of challenges, the crew’s quick thinking and adaptability have paid off in spades with the production of killer content. One of these examples taps into that trend that began back in the spring and the hunger to defeat the 2019 runner-up in New Orleans.
Now that Ohio State are in Miami for the biggest game of the season, the four-person traveling squad of Swartz, Wonderly, Charizopoulos, and Assistant Director of Creative Media Juan Reyes are ready to bring the energy and excitement to Magic City through the lens of a camera and a post on social. Ahead of tonight’s game, these storytellers have one more stroke of the digital pen to fire up the supporters in hopes of ending the final sentence of the book with an exclamation point:
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) January 9, 2021