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How to grow revenue and build a multigenerational audience by transforming your ‘athlete of the week’ contest

Sumter Item Publisher Vince Johnson presents the top ensemble award at The Bobbys in May 2023. (Micah Green/The Sumter Item)

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Gulf Coast Media and The Sumter Item revamped their Athlete of the Week contests to attract corporate sponsors and reader engagement.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. 

This “win” comes from Kayla Green, executive editor at Gulf Coast Media and The Sumter Item. Gulf Coast Media  participated in the Poynter Table Stakes program in 2023, and The Sumter Item participated in the University of North Carolina Table Stakes program in 2019-2020 and the American Press Institute-News Product Alliance product development sprint in 2023.

High school sports and local news have been connected for decades. And who doesn’t love a good, low-stakes voting competition? Athlete of the Week, or AotW, is a way to celebrate our student-athletes, engage parents and teachers and grow our reach with Gen Z.

Many outlets cover high school sports, and many probably already do some type of “athlete of the week” recognition. This is a successful formula that allows us to turn that existing franchise into a revenue-generating, highly engaging campaign that has an efficient workflow and builds community across platforms. Plus, AotW allows us to highlight games and individual achievements we would otherwise not have time to cover or simply not know about, since it’s not possible to cover every game for every sport across an entire school year. 

Our sports editor administers the AotW contest through Second Street, where users can vote without a subscription, though they must give their email address. The Second Street voting portal is embedded as a static page on our website with a homepage navigation dropdown that makes it easy to find. Four finalists are chosen each Monday and promoted on our website and social media. The winner is announced across all our platforms: the website, newsletter and social media on Wednesday, and print on Friday. This can easily be adjusted to your workflow and printing schedule (more on that below).

Gulf Coast Media’s coverage area in Baldwin County, Alabama — the fastest-growing county in the state, with a geographic footprint larger than Rhode Island’s — includes 13 high schools and 250,000 people. We have one sports editor. These schools, like others across the country, enroll both students who play sports for fun and friendship and others who go on to play at Division I programs and Power Five schools. The 32-week campaign recognized a winner from 11 schools across 10 sports with a total of 11,119 votes and 1,877 email opt-ins.

The campaign is sponsored by a local business, bringing Gulf Coast Media $12,000 a year. Print subscriptions are up 5% from this time last year, and digital subscriptions are up 50%. Here are four highlights from Gulf Coast Media and The Sumter Item’s Athlete of the Week contest.

Tie the project to revenue before launching

What we did and why: Because we’re a small staff, we’re constantly making choices about what to cover and what will have the largest impact. Getting a sponsor for AotW makes the campaign a priority so it doesn’t get forgotten in the chaos of the news cycle.

What worked well: We currently run AotW at two properties in two starkly different markets: GCM on the Alabama Gulf Coast and The Sumter Item in Sumter, South Carolina. Both are sponsored by a local furniture store. In its first year, GCM’s sponsorship totalled  $12,000. The sponsor has renewed all three years in South Carolina. A key here is to secure sponsorship before launching.

What didn’t work as expected: Since this is a highly social and digital campaign, make sure the sponsor has a presence on those platforms. We’re in the first year for the GCM campaign, and while it is running smoothly and getting the engagement we want, our sponsor is not active on Facebook. Social tagging is a boost for sponsors in our other markets, but here we’re relying on providing emails for leads.

Try this:

  • Target specific clients. We go for advertisers who want brand awareness and/or email leads since the campaign uses their logo, not ads with coupons or time-bound sales.
  • Include the sponsor on all promotions. Their logo is part of the main AotW graphic. They also get a print banner ad that runs on the bottom of the sports page on the day the winner is announced, as well as a digital banner ad and a tag in every related social post and newsletter.

Nudge readers to opt in to other products

What we did and why: We have a few thousand print subscribers and over 30,000 newsletter subscribers. The biggest way we grow that audience is by opt-in contests and campaigns like Best Of and AotW.

What worked well: We require that readers give their email to vote, and they can then opt in to receive further communications from us and/or the sponsor. Once this is set up in Second Street, it captures quality information on its own. More than 1,250 voters have opted in to sports and news updates from GCM and 504 have opted in to deals from the sponsor, Seacrest Furniture.

Try this:

  • Give readers the option to opt in to other products — including products that haven’t launched yet —  so you can grow your audience efficiently. We captured emails for a sports-only newsletter before it launched, and collected phone numbers for a text alert campaign during the planning phase. We recently launched that campaign with a built-in audience of 5,000 opt-ins rather than starting from zero.
  • We have never promised the sponsor a specific number of email leads, but talk more generally about the benefits of attaching their brand to this positive, engaging campaign.

Try an Athlete of the Year bracket and sports awards event

What we did and why: At the end of the school year, we take all the AotW winners and put them into an Athlete of the Year bracket. Brackets run in print as well as across our digital platforms. The year we launched the bracket in South Carolina, we kept it simple by having the winner come into the office for a photo with an award and the sponsor. Last year, building off the momentum of our high school sports coverage and contests, we held an in-person sports awards ceremony, similar to ESPN’s Espy Awards, to announce the Athlete of the Year winner.

Planning for the event took a few months and involved the sales and graphics departments and sports editor. The event itself was hosted by our publisher and sports editor, with other reporters, sponsor representatives and public-facing members of the newsroom serving as award announcers. We also invited readers to vote on an entirely separate set of categories, including best players, teams, sports, moments, etc. We named the event “The Bobbys” after Yankees second baseman and 1960 World Series MVP Bobby Richardson, who is from and still lives in Sumter, and who gave a keynote speech at the ceremony.

At The Bobbys, each winner receives a framed certificate and trophy. Keynote speaker and program namesake Bobby Richardson, 1960 World Series MVP with the Yankees and a Sumter native, surprised winners in 2023 with signed copies of his book “Impact Player.” (Micah Green/The Sumter Item)

What worked well: The in-person award is great face time for the sponsor, and the once-a-year schedule ensured we didn’t overburden anyone. The sports awards show allowed us to secure more sponsorships for each new category and even scholarship money for student winners. For the bracket, we again did not require a subscription to vote, only an email address, capturing a wider audience. The contests have grown each year in South Carolina, garnering 18,573 votes for the 2023 Athlete of the Year, up by over 2,000 from 2022. The other categories received 23,525 votes. This level of engagement is where we’ve found the most success in reaching a new, younger audience.

What didn’t work as expected: It’s challenging to find a date at the end of the school year/the beginning of the summer that aligns with 12 schools’ graduation ceremonies, lingering tournaments and family vacations. If you have a player or team you really want to include, work backward from there.

Try this:

  • Thirty-two is a great number for a bracket. Keep track of your weekly winners so you can stop at the right time for Athlete of the Year.
  • Winners attend The Bobbys free and the price point for family and friends is extremely affordable so there is no barrier to access ($10 general admission, $5 with student ID). We aren’t trying to make money on the students. Category sponsorships make that possible.
  • Overpromote: Tag all the nominated students on social media, write articles previewing the event and run multi-platform house ads. Don’t let your great product get lost in the mix.

Develop a template, then customize it 

What we did and why: Our two properties operate in very different markets, and we customized these campaigns to accommodate their different needs and printing schedules. Other outlets with existing “athlete of the week” series can do the same. For example, The Sumter Item runs stat blurbs in print for all the finalists, as well as a full-length feature story on each winner. GCM’s press deadlines make that unfeasible. The finalists are instead promoted online and we feature the winner in print with a baseball card-like graphic. The graphic includes a sponsor logo and cutline with the athlete’s stats.

What worked well:  In both Alabama and South Carolina, we make a digital baseball card graphic for each finalist, which runs on social media and can be shared by each athlete’s fans. The winner’s card is also published in print and across all digital platforms. AoTW polls have enormous social reach. Of all the posts published to the GCM Sports Facebook account in the last 90 days, seven of the top 25 and 11 of the top 40 were AoTW polls.

What didn’t work as expected: This does take time, though it’s not difficult. If you want to announce finalists on Monday, you’ll likely need to get started gathering stats on Friday or over the weekend. Change the timeline to suit your needs.

Try this:

  • Don’t waste time asking for nominations. Coaches and parents are welcome to send them in, but field the finalists yourself so you’re not committed to a timeline that’s out of your control. This also allows for diversity in who gets chosen, so it’s not just all football players or weighted toward one school.
  • Promote the AotW campaign on every platform you use that reaches your target audience. Print readers probably like to read an article. High school students just need the baseball card to share on Instagram.
  • This should be a given, but get good quality photos of the finalists. If you don’t have staff photos on hand, ask the coach or message the student for a picture. (We do this through our official GCM/Item Sports Instagram account.). No one will share the baseball cards if the photo is blurry.
  • Make it easy for people to share and vote. The individual baseball cards create hype and decrease friction, especially with a new Gen Z audience that has no previous relationship with their local paper. Include the link to vote on each card.
  • Repurpose good content. Once you’ve created a good product, don’t be too quick to reinvent the wheel.