COLUMBIA — Kat Lucchesi hustled down the stairs at the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex, offered a firm handshake while clutching an iPhone in the other hand, and apologized for running a couple minutes late. Her office was a mess, she said, and she was prepping something for “Coach.”
She glanced back down at the phone and then to her watch and slid into a theater chair in the football team room. She took one more glance at the phone before setting it face down on the floor.
Lucchesi is the football team’s multimedia director, a marketing role that also contributes to coach Gary Pinkel’s recruiting efforts. She’s in charge of the team’s Web page and blog on GaryPinkel.com. She commands the team’s numerous social media accounts, produces highlight videos, directs content, contributes to public relations initiatives and more. As such, Lucchesi often needs to be glued to her iPhone.
She used to teach multimedia journalism classes and vowed to her students she wouldn’t look at her phone during class if they didn’t look at theirs. With one notable exception: if “Coach” calls.
So, how many hours in a day is she on her iPhone?
“All the time,” she said as she glanced down at the phone on the floor. Aside from staff meetings. “Coach doesn’t let us to take it in there.”
Pinkel and the football program basically created Lucchesi’s position in 2009. She had just graduated from MU with a journalism degree. As a student, she worked at KOMU 8 as a sports reporter, producing a segment called “This Week in Mizzou Football.”
The Tigers wanted to expand their Web presence and pegged a savvy, young content producer who knew the team and the technology.
With the shifting plate tectonics of college football realignment, Lucchesi’s job expanded.
Texas in 2011 launched the Longhorn Network, its own television channel, holding the network over the Big 12 Conference’s head as a ransom not to leave.
Texas A&M, unable to bear its bitter rival’s monetary accomplishment, bolted for the Southeastern Conference, which asked Missouri to join to give the conference an even number of teams.
The Tigers obliged. The first round of conference realignment concluded. So Kat Lucchesi was tasked with running a multimedia department in a new era of big-money college football.
Mizzou makes its identity
Realignment touched off a high-speed chase for college football programs to rebrand themselves and reinvest in their identities.
Missouri, a charter member of the Big 8, now had to introduce itself to a host of SEC frenemies that were unfamiliar with what the Columns are doing on the quad or why exactly MU insists on calling itself “Mizzou.”
Athletics, namely football, are a primary touchpoint for how millions of people learn about an institution. Take, for example, this reporter, who saw a Tiger football game on television during his latter high school years and did a Google search to learn more about MU. Presto: five years later, here he is.
“It’s building name recognition and, as you know, they’re no longer attracting students from (just) St. Louis and local towns,” said Allen Adamson, chairman of the brand consulting firm Landor and an author of several books on branding. “There’s a global marketplace for American education. You’re not going to be on Mizzou’s mailing list if you’re sitting in Abu Dhabi, but you’re competing for the same spot.”
And though folks in Abu Dhabi might not be watching American football, they might see a viral video of Missouri offensive linemen twerking at practice, a clip Lucchesi posted during 2014 training camp. It made it on SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10” plays of the week and has tens of thousands of views.
By the way, that was “Coach’s” idea, Lucchesi said. No, not the twerking. But he came into a team meeting and told each position group they would dance to either start or end each practice over the summer, “and Kat’s going to record it and put it on YouTube.”
It demonstrates the characteristics the team wants to promote online. The Tigers are “family oriented” and have a “positive attitude”, traits Luchessi said she wants to publicize.
Some content the team promotes has those messages, among others, built in.
Such as “accountability”. “GP (Gary Pinkel) reiterates how important it is to be positive with his players when coaching,” the team’s @MizzouFootball account tweeted during Pinkel’s Monday press conference.
And “leadership by example”. A blog post titled “The Law of the Playmaker,” preaches the importance of getting the ball in the hands of the players who want it and deserve to have it.
In 2013, the football team wanted one big tent to unite all of these qualities. The NFL Draft was nearing and the Tigers had a surefire first-round pick in defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. So Lucchesi convened a meeting to answer one question: how do we spin this for Mizzou?
The answer: create a catchphrase. That was the birth of “Mizzou Made,” a term that has since overflowed into the everyday parlance of athletics officials and even Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
MU in recent years experimented with different slogans like “One Mizzou” to represent the department and the rest of the school. “Mizzou on the Move” and “Mizzou Unleashed” are others athletics has used. The wrestling program has its own slogan, “Tiger Style”, that defines its mat mentality.
All of this helps brand a program — and helps sell T-shirts. Who wouldn’t want to be Mizzou Made?
“Mizzou has had just recently, it’s safe to say, they’ve had some success,” said Kenji Jackson, the safeties coach at Missouri State and former Tiger defensive captain who sat in on that fateful meeting as a graduate assistant who worked in recruiting and communications.
“That’s allowed the program, the campus, the state of Missouri to have more exposure,” he added. “And you tag the ‘Mizzou Made’ label on that, it certainly doesn’t hurt the school and the state.”
From an athletics marketing perspective, the campaign works. Adamson, from the marketing firm, compared Missouri football’s marketing material to that of the New York Yankees, the quintessential American sports franchise.
“I think they’re slicker than most professional sports teams,” he said. “I think they’re playing a professional-level branding game with a college team.”
The importance of the brand
The impact of that brand identity is profound, branding experts say. See a cool YouTube video (like the one the Tigers take the field to), and you might be more apt to buy a T-shirt. Or maybe, for those out of SEC country, you’ll enhance your cable or satellite TV subscription to include the SEC Network.
After all, it was that whole Longhorn Network mess that energized college football’s branding war.
“(TV contracts) are changing the game, no pun intended, for colleges because they’re sitting on these huge assets,” Adamson said.
The screen is impressionable. Not just the TV screen.
College teams promote themselves on Twitter to get noticed by their most coveted consumers — high school football players. Each week the Tigers tweet the uniform combination they’ll wear in the upcoming game. Cool jerseys and helmets might be enough to sway a recruit their way.
“The most noticeable thing for me, because you gotta keep in mind you’re dealing with 17- and 18-year-olds, they like to see the equipment, the helmets, the cleats. They want to see the fun stuff,” said Jackson, who spent 2014 as a recruiting assistant at Northwestern.
The Northwestern Wildcats, who signed with Under Armour in 2012, saw a bump in interest because of their new look, he said.
“Some of those kids, they’re raised in a household where they’re a little more mature where you can see the big picture,” Jackson said. “Other kids, they want to know what they can get their hands on in a month or two.”
Deep down, said Lucchesi, “Everything we do comes back to recruiting.”
Exhibit A: Slapping the Mizzou Made moniker on alums who are NFL players. If Arizona Cardinals linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has a big game on Sunday, he’s “Mizzou Made.”
Did Chase Daniel throw a touchdown in a preseason game? Mizzou Made.
Jeremy Maclin signed with the Kansas City Chiefs? A Mizzou Made legend comes home.
Coaches can use promotional material — including blog posts and highlight tapes — to lure recruits of a specific area. Maclin in Kansas City could soon help Missouri land a kid from the city.
“Yes, you want to win football games, but you have to recruit well to win football games,” Lucchesi said. “And to recruit well, you have to have a good name out there overall.”
Other programs use similar techniques, Jackson said. It’s touched off a social media arms race. On one hand, that gives potential student athletes more access to information than ever before. On the other, teams have more control over what information gets out to recruits about their universities.
If Tiger recruiters don’t want a player to know about Aldon Smith, a once-prized Tiger defensive end who can’t seem to find his way out of the police blotter, Missouri marketers won’t write about him or include him in photo galleries of MU alums in the NFL.
“It’s almost like ‘don’t ask don’t tell’,” Jackson said. “If a kid’s not asking about it, why would we tell them? Why expose a weakness?”
Well, Missouri wouldn’t. It’s in the business of good news. That’s why Lucchesi’s phone buzzes with news about Marcus Murphy, who’s found a role for the New Orleans Saints as a rookie.
Or five text messages from Michael Sam — the gay SEC defensive player of the year who applauded his teammates for the atmosphere they created. You know, “family oriented.” “Positive attitude.”
“We’ve got something new coming up with him,” Lucchesi said. “Want me to turn my phone off for now?”
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.