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No bracket needed: Kentucky is NCAA basketball’s social media champion

As the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament tips off this week, 68 teams will compete for a trip to New Orleans for a berth in the Final Four and a shot at the National Championship.

When it comes to leveraging social media, one team has separated itself from the rest of the college world. For the past two years, the Kentucky basketball program has set the standard for how to effectively use social media.

For the past two years, Kentucky basketball has bravely ventured where few other teams have gone when it comes to social media.

And earlier this month, the Wildcats again forged new territory when ESPN included their players’ Twitter handles on its broadcast during a basketball game.

At a time when colleges are banning student-athletes from using social media and coaches are hesitant to reveal anything about their programs, Kentucky is adamantly blazing an unapologetic trail in the opposite direction.

While some media members erroneously call for coaches to ban their players from using Twitter, UK Head Coach John Calipari leads the way by tweeting (or having someone do it for him) regularly.

Kentucky has done things few other schools would even contemplate, such as exclusive video looks inside the locker room of Calipari talking to the team before and after the game. Not only do they encourage – and promote – their players’ use of social media, they teach them how to do it wisely and effectively.

Want to know, before the game starts, what the announcer will say to introduce Kentucky before their game tonight?  They post that online, too.

There are other schools that are doing excellent work in social media.

  • Duke’s BluePlanet.com leverages their current and former student-athletes very effectively.
  • As I wrote in January, Baylor did a terrific job in using social media to promote quarterback Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy run.
  • Stanford probably has the most creative and effective use of video to promote all of its teams and its original programming on YouTube is a trendsetter.

But Kentucky is unabashed in its embrace of social media.

“For those that have asked, having our players Twitter handles on the ESPN broadcast was our idea,” UK Associate Athletic Director DeWayne Peevy tweeted earlier this month.

Photos courtesy of FieldhouseMedia.net

The tweet prompted a fascinating Twitter conversation between Peevy and Chris Yandle, Baylor’s associate athletic director of athletic communications and a strong social media advocate. Baylor athletics has a talented sports information department that passionately embraces social media.

That made the following exchange an insightful look into how two social-media-savvy schools handle social media issues.

Yandle asked Peevy on Twitter: “Just curious as to your rationale behind it. We don’t promote/publicize our [student-athlete’s] handles. Equate that to handing out cell #.”

Peevy responded: “They are already public and we monitor them. Also, the players loved it.”

Yandle: “We monitor, too. Just think it becomes slippery slope if you promote and then something happens. Just our approach at Baylor.”

Peevy:  “At Kentucky, they couldn’t be put in a bigger spotlight. They are already followed by more than anyone in the country.”

Peevy then added: “We preach promoting and protecting their brand and I think they do a pretty good job with our assistance.”

Two things stood out from that exchange that every coach should seriously consider: “the players loved it” and the realization that “they couldn’t be put in a bigger spotlight.”

Peevy is right, the players’ Twitter accounts are already very public. They may get more followers from the ESPN exposure, but that didn’t make them any more “public.”

So if they are public, as Kentucky has figured out, it’s best to teach and help the student-athletes use this communication tool and opportunity.

Which leads to the “kids love it” part. Kentucky is being very, very smart here. Social media is a largely unregulated platform by the NCAA. Coaches have some limitations on how they can use it to talk about and with potential student-athletes, but there isn’t much beyond those regulations.

As other coaches and schools ban social media, Kentucky is turning into a powerful recruiting tool.

The New York Times wrote about Calipari embracing social media back in 2010 (a lifetime ago for social media). If you are a high school kid with big dreams, would you rather play for a coach seen as forward-thinking and embracing social media and willing to help you publicize your brand, or one who says you can’t do that?

Two years ago, Kentucky was posting videos of Calipari’s pregame and postgame speeches inside the locker room. Want to show a kid what it would be like to play for Calipari? How does the coach relate to the players in the locker room? Well, here, take a look on YouTube.

Kentucky also knows how to connect with their fans.  A behind the scenes tour of their practice facility, narrated by two players, is on the school’s website. Great practice – and publicity – for student-athletes. And would-be players have to look at the potential exposure and be excited about getting such a chance.

This trend will gain traction. As Kentucky’s program continues to thrive – and land some of the best high school players – other schools will begin to emulate their approach to social media.

Duke has been doing it for some time with it dukeblueplanet.com site. And Duke, like Kentucky, does not ban its players from using Twitter. In fact, the contact for dukeblueplanet.com is the school’s recruiting coordinator.

More schools will adopt this approach – they will just have to try and catch up with Kentucky.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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