Olympic Opportunity

Tips for media coverage, with or without athletes in the game.

August 10, 2016

Beginning last Friday and running through August 21st, it is and will be impossible to scroll through news feeds, turn on the television, or look at our local papers, without learning of stories of Olympians who have overcome struggle and inspired a nation, those who have won gold, and those who have just missed out on a medal by .002 of a second.

According to the NCAA, there are more than 1,000 incoming, current and former student-athletes competing in Rio; and 168 of them are currently enrolled at colleges and universities across the U.S. And Vice Sports recently published a piece on an overlooked pipeline to the Olympics, in a piece that explores how community colleges have sent 44 students and alumni to the Olympic games this year.

With a worldwide event dominated by so many college athletes, here are a few tips on making the most, media-wise, of the Olympic games.  

1) Work closely with the athletes, coaching and athletics staff.

Many colleges are getting it right and have been working with their athletes and coaching staff for months leading up to the start of the Olympics.

For example, just one day into the games, West Virginia University (WVU) sophomore Ginny Thrasher won gold in the 10-meter air rifle competition. She has been featured by media across the nation, and her institution is getting a lot of attention because of it. In a recent piece by the Charleston-Gazette Mail, Thrasher credits WVU for her Olympic success.

Sharon Martin, vice president of university relations at WVU, says university relations has a very close working relationship with the athletics department, which is essential to elevating the institution’s message and being able to capitalize on opportunities. She also says it was a bit serendipitous, as the university launched a new creative brand, “Go First,” 18 months ago and then Thrasher won the first gold in Rio.  “Ginny is a very natural, authentic spokesperson for the university,” she added.

Another example, the University of California system has sent the most athletes to the Olympics from the U.S. According to their website, they’ve sent more than 100 athletes, coaches and staff. In this comprehensive website feature: “UC is sending so many athletes that they make up 8 percent of the U.S. delegation. In all, UC participants will represent 18 sports and 27 countries.”

Story mining and data collection for these stories needs to start early to be most effective. Some athletes are able to do interviews in advance, but may be unavailable during the games, so try to make sure their coaches and campus teammates are available to enhance the story and do media interviews in their absence.

2) Start locally. Get picked up nationally. 

Not all athletes will win gold and not all colleges will send a record number of athletes.  Grinnell College in Iowa has a student-athlete who will be swimming for Uganda next week. The media team pitched their local NBC affiliate his story. With NBC serving as the host of the games, Grinnell knew network affiliates across the country were trying to localize stories. 

Begin by pitching your local paper or local NPR affiliate.  Many times these stories will get picked up on a national level, especially if there is a strong human interest component. 

Again, start early, and follow reporters who are writing about the games in advance.  

3) Go for gold with your internal audience.  

Making sure your internal audience – students, faculty, staff, alumni – are aware of any Olympic connections will get people talking about your athletes and spreading the word to their connections. Organize watch parties (and invite local media), work on a social media campaign with your athletics office and make sure you are posting all of your media coverage on your website. 

Stanford University has 39 athletes competing (the third highest among colleges and university in the U.S.) — including decorated gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky. The University took advantage of the large, extended Olympic community and held an alumni event in Rio to coincide with the games.

A couple of other good ideas: buy swag. Have your student-athletes wear a hat or a t-shirt with your institution’s name during pre- and post-Olympics interviews. [Note: before doing so, make sure you read up on when athletes are allowed to highlight their home institution—they have Olympic gear they are required to wear, but Lilly King is a great example of an Olympian who had her Indiana University affiliation noted on her swimming caps in her Olympic profile pieces on NBC.] After the games, send an email to prospective students about Olympic highlights and campus ties to the event and mix in photos with them wearing their campus gear.

4) No athletes, no problem.

While you may not have an athlete competing, there are plenty of topics for faculty experts, administrators, or alumni to talk about in Rio, from Brazil’s water quality issues like this piece in The Conversation by a professor at Michigan State University, to the psychology behind being an Olympic athlete, the Russia doping scandal, or the economic impact the games will have on host cities.   

The College of the Holy Cross did not have any athletes competing, but an alumna is currently working at the games and blogging for the athletics website. She has also participated in interviews with local media on her ties to the games.

If you missed the boat (or kayak competition!) this year, don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, or the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Cristal Steuer is a senior strategist at TVP Communications.


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