When it comes to digital branding for college sports properties, Jason R. Matheson has seen it all. After leveraging his design background to earn an internship at the University of Miami, Matheson became a mainstay in college athletics, eventually leading SID And digital teams at Miami, the University of Oklahoma, and Auburn University.

In 2016, Matheson took on a new challenge: SkullSparks. SkullSparks is a sports consulting firm that helps college sports properties leverage digital presence to build their brands. opendorse caught up with Jason to understand his career path, ambitions with SkullSparks, and thoughts on the social and digital industry within college athletics.

You worked in digital departments at Auburn, Oklahoma, and Miami prior to launching SkullSparks. Tell me about your journey to working in digital at some of college sports’ most prominent programs.

After graduating with an industrial design degree from Auburn, I worked at firms in Germany and Boston before deciding I didn’t want to continue that specific career path. I attended a CoSIDA convention in San Diego and landed an internship with the Miami Hurricanes based primarily on my design background.

In Coral Gables, I took on SID duties for several sports along with website and media guide work for football. It was a great decision to gain experience at Miami. I had the opportunity to work for the 2001 national champions and create content for a premier program.

After 9/11, I decided being closer to family in Tulsa should be a higher priority. I took an assistant SID job at Oklahoma working with softball, soccer and football. A year later in 2003, Rick Hart (now the AD at SMU) pioneered the creation of a digital media department at OU and asked me to lead it. As Director of Digital, we utilized student staff and added a full-time assistant in 2007.

After 11 years at Oklahoma, I was offered an Assistant AD/Digital job at my alma mater, Auburn, in 2013. After two years there, I launched my own sports consulting firm, SkullSparks, in 2016.

When and how did you realize you wanted to lead digital strategy for college teams?

With my industrial design background, I showed a natural propensity for identifying our work as a product and focusing on the customer. I had Photoshop and HTML experience. It was a natural progression to move from SID to digital when the department was created at OU in 2003. Digital in the early 2000s meant website and email. Social media didn’t join the job description until a few years later.

What influenced your moves to each program?

Starting out, I wanted to gain experience at a big program, so I chose Miami. I made the move to Oklahoma to be closer to family and work for a program I grew up supporting. The move to Auburn was a chance to work for my alma mater.

How did the college sports digital landscape change throughout your time at the schools? How did those changes affect your job personally?

The scope and importance of digital grew rapidly, especially with the explosion of social media in the late 2000s. Programs I worked for, at varying speeds, adapted to the realization that they could leverage their own platforms to deliver their product directly to their customers (website, social media, conference networks).

Personally, I went from operating a one-man department to supervising full-time and student staff. The power and responsibility of digital grew exponentially as we increasingly represented the face of the Athletics Department on platforms that became the first point of contact for our customers.

I refer to “pull-push” often. Our first digital platform, the Athletics Department website, had to pull fans to the URL for content. Social changed that dynamic. Teams were invited to push content to fans’ personal pages and feeds. The responsibility of treating our fans with respect (quality of content, frequency of posts, etc.) increased dramatically.

Tell me about SkullSparks.

All teams must leverage digital in building their brands to recruit fans, donors and the next generation of student-athletes. We consult with teams of all sizes. We assess their unique challenges and build custom digital strategies.

How did the idea get started?

I worked 15 years for three big Athletics Departments. Digital involves constant attention and long hours including nights and weekends for home and away events. Crisis situations always seem to arrive late on Friday afternoons. Digital also requires constant creativity on demand which is especially draining. It’s certainly different than working in the business office or another area of the department. It challenges your core.

I was ready for more flexibility in my life. Opening a sports digital consulting firm allowed me to leverage my unique experience with teams across the country. I’ve had the opportunity to assist staff on campuses big and small. I do miss the team aspect of working inside one Athletics Department. But this opportunity was too good to miss.

How have you grown since launching?

At launch, we believed our primary role would be formulating strategy for teams and then moving on. As we learned what our customers really needed, we adapted. Now we offer full service in assessing challenges, building strategy and assisting in implementation. Our specific focus is helping teams leverage digital to recruit fans, donors and student-athletes.

What is your ultimate goal for SkullSparks?

A long list of happy clients. Seriously, we want to be strong advocates for those working digital in sports, those inside Athletics Departments and across the industry.

How has your experience inside programs helped?

After 15 years working digital inside three prominent Athletics Departments, I’ve experienced the full range of situations. I’ve promoted big wins and championships. I’ve handled tough losses and coaching changes. When I consult with a team, I’ve been at their desk, with all the responsibilities and possibilities. SkullSparks begins from their point of view.

What are some of the most exciting successes SkullSparks has seen?

We had a goal of working with several teams in each of the five power conferences. We also wanted to work with FCS teams at all levels of competition. As we’ve hit those goals, it’s been especially gratifying to see our strategies adapt to these very different clients. One of the best feelings is watching one of your clients absolutely nail digital after a big win. We also enjoy the opportunity now to see coaches with client teams highlight recruiting successes on digital platforms.

Since it’s football season, let’s think about college football. How do you define the programs that you see as leaders in the social media and sports landscape?

We watch every FBS and FCS team’s official accounts across all social platforms.

We categorize teams into four groups:
1. Goliaths acting like Davids (big teams seizing digital opportunities to leverage strengths)
2. Goliaths acting like Goliaths (big teams that rest on their laurels)
3. Davids acting like Davids (small teams seizing digital opportunities to project a larger image)
4. Davids acting like Goliaths (small teams seemingly content with their stature)

I’ll identify a few football Goliaths that act like Davids in our opinion. These are historically successful teams that leverage digital to enhance their inherent strengths (in alpha order): Clemson, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas A&M, Washington.

Then there are teams that don’t have the football pedigree or are smaller, Davids who act like Davids, seizing every digital opportunity to project a larger image (again in alpha order): Elon, Georgia Southern, Holy Cross, Houston, Mercer, Mississippi State, Samford, Stephen F Austin, USF, UTSA, Virginia Tech.

I’d suggest following their official accounts. Learn and be impressed. There is a ton of creativity out there at both big and small schools.

What sets them apart from the rest?

Preparation, internal cooperation, trust, access to coaches and players, arresting visuals, innovative motion content, devotion to brand-building and relentless experimentation.

What are some of your favorite activations you’ve seen this season?

We’ve really enjoyed teams taking Instagram Stories to the next level:

We also identified our Top 25 FBS teams in motion content (video, GIFs, etc.):

And our Top 25 FBS teams and Top 20 FCS teams in visual communication:

Recruiting accounts have really taken off and we like how they have a different voice than the main athletics feed.

Finally, the ability for coaches and team accounts to share recruiting content provides fascinating insights:

What’s one big missed opportunity you see from most college programs? For example, at opendorse, we naturally think more programs should be actively working with their athlete alumni to amplify the high-quality content the program produces. What sticks out to you as a massive opportunity that is often missed?

Programs that haven’t decided what they represent/what’s unique to them. We follow every FBS and FCS team and see a ton of repetitive content that doesn’t move the needle specifically for that team’s brand. If you don’t stand for something, someone else will write your narrative.

For many programs, recruits are the primary target audience on social. What are some unique or especially effective strategies that you’ve seen?

We’ve mentioned the specific recruiting accounts (recruits don’t care to wade through SID releases or marketing content required on main accounts). Also impressed with augmented reality from Ohio State, #FromStateToSundays branding from Mississippi State, the recent uniform hoopla from Michigan and Miami and Clemson’s holistic storytelling showing what it’s like to play for the Tigers.

Is there a strategy to reach recruits that you haven’t seen yet, but would like to?

I believe virtual reality should take off. The point for recruits is to show them what it would be like to play for your school. You can put them in the weight room, take them inside the locker room and run them out on the field even if they’re thousands of miles away. VR immerses them in the experience. It’s an emotional decision to sign with a school and recruits go with how they feel.

We’ve seen brands like adidas and Miami, Louisville, and Nebraska, or Michigan and Jumpman strategically promote their partnerships beyond the jerseys on the field. A program’s primary brand clearly plays a role in recruiting – how can schools best promote their brand partnerships with social?

The programs you mentioned all shared great synergy with the apparel brands and cross-promote on their official platforms. We also like to see schools reaching out with branded apparel gift packages to its prominent athlete alumni. The publicity you receive when a star pro player wears your team brand is priceless. It’s all about elevating your brand and pro athletes provide a halo effect (especially with your target audience).

It’s clear you (and SkullSparks) are passionate about high quality visual and video content, and more programs are catching on that it’s important. How can programs stand out in the content arms race?

Hire and retain creative talent. Don’t micro-manage. Allow that talent to breathe. Finally, allocate resources effectively. Heighten your bang for the buck. Shift resources from retracting areas of your Athletics Department and move them to growth areas. Adapt and evolve or get passed.

You’re very active in #smsports Twitter. What is one thing you love about the #smsports community, and what’s one way the community could be even better?

I enjoy the perspectives of contributors inside and outside college sports. Those who work inside Athletics Departments have very different demands and constraints than those who work for pro teams. Similarly, the situation on the ground is very different for people who work for teams and those on the outside.

I’d like to see the conversation grow further beyond the social media evangelists. The #smsports conversation can devolve at times to the same group of contributors interacting amongst themselves. I sense it can seem exclusive for those who don’t contribute as often or those just breaking into the industry.

We’ve seen trends like Facebook Live, 360 video, and Instagram Stories take off over this summer. What’s “next” – one or a few trends that you see becoming very prominent in #smsports over the next several months?

I’ve previously mentioned virtual reality. We’re always looking for new digital platforms to heighten the emotion and bring fans, donors and recruits closer to the program.