UAB football is back, and the nation is beginning to know it.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Blazers had their program cut in December 2014 after becoming bowl eligible in the final game of the season. After a push from alumni, students, donors and city leaders, the program was reinstated and slated for a return to the gridiron in 2017. But it wasn’t only the football program that returned, along with the bowling and rifle teams, it was a new excitement about college athletics and pride for a city team in Birmingham.
The excitement began growing through social media with the creation of the hashtag #theReturn (emphasis on the little t). #theReturn has chronicled the story over the last two years, largely under the direction of Ted Feeley, who was hired in 2015 as UAB’s associate athletics director for communications and handles the day-to-day public relations for the football program.
“When I got down here I had no idea what scope this was doing in the magnitude of college football. Honestly, it’s been bigger than I ever anticipated,” Feeley said. “I realized from right when I got here that any content and all content that I’m putting out there is being consumed by local media and national media. It’s blown up into one of the biggest stories in college football.”
Day one of #theReturn season rolled around on Sept. 2, 2017. UAB was mentioned everywhere, including ESPN College Game Day, where former Blazer quarterback turned Grammy Award-winning country music artist Sam Hunt took the national stage as the celebrity guest picker while wearing a UAB cap. The story 2017 story was only beginning as a program record 45,212 fans flowed into Birmingham’s Legion Field later that day to witness a 38-7 win over Alabama A&M.
UAB has continued to win and the excitement has continued for the Blazers, especially on social media with national media outlets and national media figures tweeting weekly about the program.
“We say athletics is the front porch to a university, but in my opinion, social media is the front porch to athletics,” Feeley said. “When you see a tweet come from Sports Illustrated or ESPN that they’re doing on their own, that means that you’re getting the message out there and they’re taking notice
“This is the most attention we’ve ever had, and we need to strike while the iron’s hot.”
UAB upped its social media game before the season by becoming the first college athletics team or program to sign with INFLCR (pronounced Influencer), a SaaS product that empowers brands to partner with their brand ambassadors on social media through cloud storage and distribution of content and collecting of engagement data.
“It’s huge,” Feeley told INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale in a video interview after the UAB football program became bowl eligible in early November. “Being able to capture all of that data so I know exactly people are doing on social media and who is engaging with us and how their engaging with us and to have endless storage where players can go in and download right away.”
Feeley said INFLCR has helped him better know who is engaging with the @UAB_FB twitter account, Head Coach Bill Clark (@CoachBillClark) or their student-athletes and to help them document their part of #theReturn. It also helps provide content to alumni, including notable alumni such as former All-Pro NFL wide receiver Roddy White, Buffalo Bills quarterback Joe Webb III and Sam Hunt.
“Social media has revolutionized our profession. It’s revolutionized our game. We still have a long ways to go at UAB, but it’s just thinking about it and what can we do next … things that keep UAB relevant,” Feeley said. “We have national media outlets hitting me up right now, which is great, and people are talking about us on social media, so that’s how the word is getting out there right now.”
And the word is out. From national media telling the story of UAB’s uniforms in October, which honored Children’s Hospital patient names, to a national circulation of the team’s celebration of its bowl eligibility, to weekly lobbying by national sports writers to make Head Coach Bill Clark the National Coach of the Year.
On Saturday, Nov. 18, the Blazers’ return will take its biggest stage yet – a midday visit to The Swamp to challenge the Florida Gators on the SEC Network at 3:30 p.m. ET.
“Coach will say this is just the tip of the iceberg for UAB Football. We didn’t come back just to do this for one season,” Feeley said. “We came back to do this for a long time and make ourselves a national team, and social media is a big part of that. We’re going to continue to evolve as social media, as a team, as a program, as a city and the sky is the limit.
About Jim Cavale
Jim Cavale has been an entrepreneur since college when he co-founded a sports TV/Radio streaming network for his university, and then created a product to sell to other universities to help them stream their sporting events. Since then, Jim has exited multiple businesses, most recently selling his equity as President of Iron Tribe Fitness after more than six years in which he helped lead the brand from one gym in Alabama to more than 40 gym locations across America from Seattle to Miami. He is a three-time INC. 5000 entrepreneur who has recently founded two new emerging brands in the GLOW beauty on demand app and the Influencer SaaS product that empowers brands to partner with their brand ambassadors on social media. Jim is a published author with Entrepreneur Press, has spoken on stages of all sizes and publishes content regularly at http://JimCavale.com
Follow him @JimCavale on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.