In recent years, sports social media has seen a growth in the number of professional women who manage the brand voices for collegiate and professional teams. Beyond The Trestle reached out to several women who lead social media work for various programs, franchises and institutions, to get their take on the industry, its challenges and opportunities, and the difficulties that come with simply putting the phone down. These transcriptions were pieced together through a mixture of phone interviews, email threads and Twitter exchanges with some portions lightly edited for grammar or style.
Jen Blackwell Galas, University of Georgia: I came to (this career) by chance. I needed to find an internship because my scholarship was going to end, and I didn’t want to pay for an additional year of school. Found a loophole in my scholarship where it would pay for my summer classes as a full semester.
Katie Gillen, Atlanta United: I got my start in sports freshman year at the University of Florida with GatorVision and the PBS Station WUFT-TV in Gainesville. I am fortunate that I was given opportunities to volunteer from the beginning as there is much to learn and the need to network is huge in our world.
Maddie Heaps, San Diego State University: I started out in the industry officially in college, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley acting as a media relations student assistant in the athletics department. I had a love of sports from a young age — it started as a way to get attention from my dad while my sister, eight years older than me, was going through bigger life events than I was. Watching baseball or Sunday night football was our main method of bonding as I was growing up.
KG: From Florida I took a job in television production at ESPN which later led me to ESPNU. While there I started to spend more time learning the digital space and noticed how cord cutting was becoming an ever-growing problem.
Lynnea Phillips, Indiana University: I started my career during my undergraduate years at my alma mater, Colorado State University-Pueblo. As a Sports Information Student Assistant at a DII school, I had the opportunity to be involved in so much. After undergrad, I made my way to Indianapolis and the NCAA as a postgraduate intern. That’s where I got my first real exposure to college athletics on a large scale.
JBG: Around that time, (Georgia) started seriously considering making social media a full-time position. They asked if I would be interested in staying on if they gave me social media, but took away the SID part of things. I said this is perfect because I was thinking about doing this anyway!
LP: My role at North Carolina is what I would consider my big break. Admittedly, I knew almost nothing about the Tar Heels — aside from it being Michael Jordan’s alma mater. They handed me the keys to their social media, allowed me to try new things and pushed my professional development.
KG: One of the big draws to (my job with PGA TOUR Superstore) was that it was a part of the Blank Family of Businesses – being in the same family as Atlanta United FC and the Atlanta Falcons. It was exactly a year with PGA TOUR Superstore when my role opened at Atlanta United and I knew it was a perfect fit for me. I am very thankful for my then boss Matt Moore for advocating for me for the role and hiring me in time for the first ATL UTD match.
JBG: At that point, it was a crossroads for me where I was still enjoying what I was doing and I was very good at what I did, but I just didn’t love it as much as I used to. I had previously told myself how fortunate I was to work at a place like Georgia in athletics, and if I didn’t love what I was doing it was time for me to leave because I was then taking that opportunity away from somebody else, and I didn’t think that was right.
Over the last six to eight months, this has been the only way we could talk to fans.
— Jen Blackwell Galas
On the power and potential of social media
JBG: For us, (social media) is part of a revenue-generating stream, especially right now. That’s very, very important. The last couple of years, we’ve tried to walk the line of still providing really interesting and engaging content for our fans because that’s always our number one priority, but also tying sponsorships to it and helping sponsors see value in it instead of just seeing it in radio ads or in-game signage. We have 1.8 million followers, and that’s way more people than what are going to be at an event.
KG: This aspect of digital media is always changing, and I give a lot of credit to our team for having a role that works across digital and sponsorship. Every team should hire a Morgan Weeks (digital corporate sponsorship) in my opinion. She is fantastic at what she does and she helps to make sure we are attaching partners to content series that will resonate most with them and give the highest return on engagement for our partners.
MH: I don’t work in the marketing space of our social feeds — so I don’t believe I can speak pertinently on this subject. But, when faced with brand activations and when given choices to participate or not, I always think back to if our brand and voice fit the asset sent to us and if our values align with those of the brand in question.
JBG: Over the last six to eight months, this has been the only way we could talk to fans. What I’ve seen is that it’s been really challenging to keep everything really fresh when you haven’t had an event, footage or photos in six months. We’re used to summer where we have just two-and-a-half months where we take a break, reset for the next year and know summer will be a bit lighter and just rehash what we did in spring and fall.
MH: I truly believe that understanding who you are personally and how you work and function best is the key to having a great personal and brand feed. You need to be able to understand the balance of your own personality traits and quirks and those of the brand you manage– if you are not great at night and night games are the focus of your brand (a sports team), work on creating copy and interesting ideas for content beforehand. If you work better on the fly, use that talent and don’t push yourself to constantly plan ahead of time.
LP: When giving personal branding talks to coaches and student-athletes, I always encourage them to focus on three topics — I try to practice what I preach. It’s easy not to mix up your personal brand when you limit yourself to what you talk about.
MH: Overall, my personal brand is one that I believe empowers women and anyone to tell their story as authentically as possible. That is a brand that can translate to any account I manage, but with its own twist. I don’t allow myself to be just one thing because I am a multifaceted, complicated individual, and I truly don’t believe that any social page should stay stagnant and stuck in its ways.
It is knowing that I am the only person whose opinion of me truly matters and that if I believe I am speaking up on what is right and acting in a way I would be proud to share with others, I am on the right path.
— Maddie Heap
On sexism, bullying and mental health
KG: Sexism and cyberbullying are far too common in the world of sports social media. People often forget that there are real people behind brand accounts who work extremely hard and live in the mentions day in and day out.
JBG: The people on the other end of that, they don’t know who they are talking to. They don’t think they’re talking to a human being. They think they’re talking to this, like, palace on the hill kind of thing. To them, it’s this brand and they don’t realize there is a person doing it.
MH: Everyone is a keyboard warrior these days and feels as if their opinion or attitude on a subject is the correct one. If I do anything to fight back, it is to continue speaking up and not take what is said about myself personally and continue to grow in who I know I am. It is knowing that I am the only person whose opinion of me truly matters and that if I believe I am speaking up on what is right and acting in a way I would be proud to share with others, I am on the right path.
JBG: You can’t take everything super personal — at least I can’t — because if you do, you’re going to be pissed all the time. I learned a long time ago it’s a lot easier to be happy than it is to be angry, so I try to take it all with a grain of salt.
LP: Fighting back isn’t always as direct or aggressive as it sounds. I’m a big believer in connecting with other women in sports so that we can support each other. “Lifting as I rise” (as Women Leaders in College Sports calls it) is also another idea that I mindfully practice — supporting other women and establishing opportunities for them. My goal is to make sports a better place for all women.
JBG: Let’s say a player has a bad game, and people talk about that player in ways that aren’t right — like, they wish ill on that player — I have zero patience for it. I will block you quicker than you can sneeze.
KG: Although we all know it’s part of the job, our team works to be creative every single day with a positive attitude, so the criticism can be disheartening. As a manager, it’s difficult to see my team absorbing the negative comments, but we talk through it and are conscious to not take it personally.
JBG: What really bothers me is — and I have a lot of women who I am friends with who work in this same space, particularly in the NBA, NFL and NHL — when the comments come in and they say ‘oh you don’t know anything about sports.’ And I guarantee that I could talk circles around you. I know more than you probably ever think you will know.
KG: Putting the phone down and unplugging is something I struggle with everyday. It is the first thing I do when I wake up and last thing I see before going to sleep. My screen time is disturbing. I sometimes just close the Apple notification when it comes through because it scares me how much I am on my phone/computer.
LP: Unplugging is what I struggle with the most. I can count on one hand the amount of days where I haven’t done any kind of work-related activities since starting my career in social media back in 2014. I do recognize the importance of being present where you are, though — I may work every day but I try not to work all day.
KG: With all that said, it is paramount to unplug. Special occasions, vacation, and spending time with family are all times I try and put the phone down. Playing soccer and yoga are also great because I can’t have my phone while doing both of those activities. It is something I am working on getting better at and working towards every day.
Find a mentor.
— Lynnea Phillips
On mentoring, role models and the future
LP: Jessica Smith is the biggest standout. She worked at the NCAA when I was an intern, and I had the opportunity to pick her brain on a handful of occasions. She’s brilliant. Jess was the first person who really encouraged me to use social media to build a brand. Now I take the things she taught me and teach them to my interns and student-athletes.
MH: To say I just have one role model in this industry would be a lie. Truthfully, I am so blessed to know so many amazing people in the sports industry (professional, college, amateur) that singling out anyone misses the point of it all. I am SO grateful to the women who came before me that allowed me to be in the rooms I am in now. And I am even more amazed that I have been able to inspire women and men to tell their stories and be their most authentic selves and to show up every day.
KG: I think one of the most important things is to be kind to those around you. Our world is very small, and you never know who may be your boss or your direct report one day. Aside from that, know that every obstacle has a chance to be a hurdle in your career — just know when to ask for help.
MH: The resilience, amazing content and work, and the people I get to see and interact with are who I look up to and inspire me. It is someone different each and every day. How amazingly blessed am I to say that?
JBG: I think there is this feeling in this movement to really say I want to be the person that I wish I had had.
LP: Find a mentor. They don’t even need to know they’re your mentor — just find someone you look up to, and they don’t even have to be in the social/digital media part of the industry. Bounce ideas off of them. Ask them questions. Listen to their feedback.
JBG: I think women are very well equipped to be very successful in this space, so when I see someone saying those things to a 22-year-old, I am like ‘you don’t have to fight this battle, I got you.’