On brand
Table of contents
Building Brands

How did a basketball team become a social media powerhouse?

July 22, 2020 · 6 min read

@DukeMBB is the first university athletics team to break one million followers on Instagram, turning its basketball program into a social media powerhouse that grosses over $45 million in brand value each year. As a result, Duke Men's Basketball reaches a larger audience than almost all other sports media outlets.

Duke uses creative content as a way to connect with fans, a medium to support players, and tool to recruit the next best athletes. It's a big reason why the Blue Devils continue to recruit top talent year after year, and they're only just getting started. This week we spoke with David Bradley, Creative Director for Duke Men's Basketball about how he got started, advice for lean social media teams, and what his team has done to combat COVID.

Tell us about yourself, David!

I am from Connecticut originally but have lived in North Carolina since 2000, my freshman year at Duke. I am a life-long sports fan, so the opportunity to attend a school known for its academics and athletics was the dream. After getting accepted to Duke, I knew I wanted to do anything I could to carve out opportunities around Duke Athletics, ideally men's basketball. Early on in my sophomore year, there was an ad in the school newspaper from the men's basketball team seeking student interns who had experience in Photoshop and PageMaker. I had dabbled in Photoshop in high school, so I took a shot. The program brought me in for an interview and Mike Schrage (now Elon Head Coach; then Director of Ops) gave me a chance.

Once I had my foot in the door, my priority at Duke became helping the basketball program however I could while also trying to add unique value. I found my niche in the program on the creative side as a storyteller, at first producing recruiting mailouts and the team magazine.

As I earned trust in the program and developed my skills, I was afforded even more opportunities. Before graduating in 2004, Mike offered me a job to stick around and I jumped at it. At this time, social media was exploding onto the scene, and I was in the right place to help guide the program in all things social. The emergence of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have really changed how brands and individuals can tell their stories, and I've helped Duke navigate all of that.

What's a typical day for you in a pre-COVID world?

It depends on the time of year. In season, we're a lot more structured. Game days are different than practice days. Travel days are different than home games. We typically have practice at 1:45PM in season, so the day ends up built around that and filled with meetings, phone calls and planning in the morning. I have an office next to the assistant coaches so I am able to connect with them on a daily basis and bring their perspective to our social media team. And we have a Social Media Lab close to the court in Cameron where our creative team works — so I spend a lot of time in there year-round.

How has COVID changed your social media strategy?

Well, typically our schedule throughout the year is very consistent. We know what our tent pole events will be and can build around those. COVID forced us to adjust and shift our content focus. We still needed to close the books on the 2020 season, while figuring out how to move forward with so much uncertainly. I think some of the best ways we've been able to attack the COVID effects are by doing a few things:

  • Focusing on collaboration more than than ever

  • Listening and avoiding the pressure to rush into decisions

  • Staying positive — trying to find excitement in being forced to put together a much different puzzle than we've ever had before

  • Building one-to-one connections (with co-workers, fans on social, peers, etc.)

How do you ensure consistency across all of your content?

We have a style guide that serves as the foundation for brand consistency. We roll it out once per year and discuss any changes we may want to make. We also manage all of our content in Air, which helps us easily store and share key brand assets.

Our staff structure and experience also helps. I generally post or see everything before it goes out — and have done that for as long as Duke Basketball has been on social media. Nolan Elingburg produces a lot of our content and has worked at Duke for close to a decade. Our experience and communication as a unit makes it a lot easier to keep that consistency you like to see.

Who are all the players on the content side? What does your staff look like?

We've got a great team. Our primary content producers are Stephen Ochoa, Nolan Elingburg, and Reagan Lunn (photographer for Duke Athletics), Zack Samburg (student), and Madison Cook (student).

We've got two student graphic designers (who don't attend Duke) who have done great work for us (Ryan Keep for a couple years and Jacob Ferris just came on board). We've also got a network of freelancers who help with various specialty projects. Our sports info director is Mike DeGeorge.

The Duke team.
The Duke team.

Duke Men's Basketball has incredibly high engagement across its social media accounts, but Instagram especially. I think the next highest collegiate team has half the engagement of @dukembb. Why do you think this is? What's your secret?

Well, there is an irony to social media. While the nature of social draws us to the present moment and the hustle to crank out short form content every second, the best brands play the long game. We've been really focused on social for a long time. We don't take breaks in the summer. We've been aggressive in jumping all-in on channels that can help us reach our target audiences. And most of all — I've had the support from Coach K to build a true creative team and find talented people who can help us. It is impossible to really have success on social as a pro or college sports team without a team working behind-the-scenes, collaborating and focusing together on the brand and the mission.

Basketball games happen live and your team is responsible for posting and reacting as the Duke Men's Basketball brand in real time. How do you prepare for the unknown? What's the methodology for game day?

We have an elaborate Google doc with dozens of tabs to help provide organization on a day-to-day basis. One of the tabs is a "GAMEDAY" doc with checklists. We then meet early in the season and around big games to ensure everyone is on the same page. Once gameday hits, you have to be ready for anything, expect the unexpected, and assume victory until the buzzer sounds.

Often times it isn't the lack of great ideas that's the issue, it's the lack of resources. What advice do you have for small social media teams or teams with small budgets? Where can they start?

More and more, young people are pursuing careers in social and doing so really early (sometimes in high school). Many of these folks can create quality work and would gladly do so as part of an internship or to build up their portfolio. We've had multiple graphic designers do work for us while they were in high school. I would suggest building a network through social and finding folks on campus and beyond who want to help. Be intentional about who you follow and build a network through social. Talented creatives are only a DM away. And then once you find people who are passionate and can help — figure out a way to play to their strengths. There are so many ways to tell a story.

How has your social media strategy for Duke Men's Basketball affected recruiting?

We've always considered recruits and that age demo to be our target audience. Social has helped shift how our brand is perceived by recruits. For example, Jeremy Roach (incoming PG) actually mentioned in an interview that what he saw on social played a big role in his decision to come to Duke. Just about every recruit that commits now says they're going to "join The Brotherhood" at Duke. And every time they do, I feel like our work has really resonated because "The Brotherhood" is something we've really driven through social.

Related posts


Why we sent 30 elderly people to protest an Adweek Conference

March 05, 2024

At Air, we’re always trying to find new ways to engage our audience and meet them where they are. But only rarely do we try and take that last part literally. When we read that Adweek would be hosting its Commerceweek event in New York City on February 28th, we decided to try something a bit… different.

Unblock creativity.

Everything you hate, we automate

Need to talk to a human first? Request a demo →

Air workspace