Arizona Hires Digital Firm Behind The Rock to Recruit in NIL Age

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Back on April 23, Rob Gronkowski set a Guinness World Record for the “highest altitude catch of an American football,” when he caught a ball dropped from a helicopter hovering 600 feet above Arizona Stadium. The former University of Arizona star was in Tucson to coach in the school’s spring game the following day (Teddy Bruschi coached the other team). Video of the stunt went viral, bringing positive attention to a program that has not won a game since October 2019. Preliminary figures suggest the record-setting video received at least 10 million organic views. The story was also picked up by hundreds of media outlets worldwide.

But as Liquid Light (the company that orchestrated and produced the video) CEO Mo Darwiche says, “No video goes viral on accident.” The digital production executive explained the video is part of a calculated effort by new Arizona head football coach Jedd Fisch to place the program “at the cutting edge of digital content, and ultimately attract elite players looking for a school that not only will help them get to the next level, but also allow them to take advantage of their name, image and likeness while in college.”

Our Take: (In the interest of full disclosure, Jedd Fisch was my neighbor in the late 80s/early 90s. Our families lived across the street from one another.)

Since taking the reins of my beloved Wildcats in late December, Fisch has been busy. He made a series of strong coaching hires, brought in several D-1 transfers to improve a depleted roster and welcomed Wildcat football alumni back into the fold. Contracting Liquid Light, the company that built large YouTube followings for the likes of Patriots QB Cam Newton, boxer Ryan Garcia, The Rock and Kevin Hart, shows he understands the power of positive digital content. “We launched Cam Newton’s YouTube channel [when he was in Carolina] and made it the most popular channel amongst NFL players, and we’ve had a ton of success with Ryan Garcia, the boxer, too,” Darwiche said. “[Garcia’s channel] just won the YouTube Streamy Award for sports channel of the year in 2020, beating out the likes of Dude Perfect.” It’s worth noting that Fisch, the former New England QB coach, received a positive review on Liquid Light from Newton.

While Fisch spent the last three seasons on NFL sidelines, the Bill Belichick/Sean McVay disciple cut his coaching teeth working under Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida. He also spent two years under Jim Harbaugh and coached as recently as 2017 in the college ranks (he finished that season as the interim HC at UCLA). So, he understands that recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program. Fisch believes digital content creation can help bring better talent to Arizona, which hasn’t produced a first rounder since 2008. “The biggest thing [in recruiting] is marketing your program and bringing energy to the program. So, how do you generate [buzz] and [reach] 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds? Computers and phones,” he said.

Because the goal of the campaign is to generate buzz for the program, Liquid Light will work with Arizona to produce 14 videos that reach a crossover audience (i.e. not just fans of the program). “To create a [popular] channel and put the school on the map [among potential recruits], we need to break the mold and think outside the box,” Darwiche said. Hence, the helicopter stunt.

Darwiche suggested that having a popular YouTube channel in a world where players can capitalize on their name, image and likeness could help Arizona attract star talent. “If we build a successful content hub for the school that is capturing a broader audience, there’s an opportunity to make stars out of the players that go there. And as players look to build their name and likeness, they are going to look for schools that understand digital content better than anyone.” The more people talk about a player and their program, the more their personal profile will grow.

Fisch agreed that once NIL rules are on the books there will be an intense focus on helping players build their personal brands, and he is optimistic that having a robust digital content strategy will give Arizona a recruiting advantage. “I’m very hopeful that when prospective student athletes see what they will get if they come to the University of Arizona, the type of platform they will get digitally and socially, and what they can accomplish during their four years here and beyond, that it becomes a program players are seeking to come to,” he said.

As it stands, few schools are thinking about digital content in terms of gaining a competitive advantage, Darwiche said. “Clemson and Ohio State probably have the best approaches,” he said. “Our goal is to make Arizona Football the No. 1 social media and content channel in all of college sports,” he added.

Fisch is all-in on creating the most aggressive digital media brand in college football. In addition to hiring Liquid Light for the season, “We are going to focus in on trying to build a TV [and podcast] studio in the middle of our football building,” he said. The head ball coach (that’s a Spurrier reference) envisions the facility providing value far beyond the football field (which is another reason players should come to Tucson). “My hope is that players learn not just how to be interviewed, but also how to interview; that not only allows them to promote, but teaches them how to become a promoter,” he said. “Maybe there’s an opportunity for guys to get involved in communications or advertising. Maybe there’s an opportunity for guys to help make digital videos. We just want to help players that come join Arizona football to be able to do things outside of running, blocking, tackling and catching.”

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