One-hundred and twenty-three steps separate the main concourse of Harvard Stadium from the sparse press box tucked atop its roof. On a chilly September afternoon before football’s home opener against Brown, Allison L. Miller, an associate director of athletic communications, climbs each one, two interns in tow.
With football’s home opener against Brown then ahead, it’s a ritual familiar to Miller and her staff: haul boxes of programs, game notes, soft drinks, extension cords, and a printer to the “temporary” 1981 structure, before distributing media seating assignments to most of the 185 credentialed, checking statistics systems and preparing notes to walk tomorrow’s color commentators from Fox College Sports through this season’s major player and team storylines.
Yet adding a special wrinkle to the list, a New England Patriots home game the next day means the nearly 600 programs reserved for credentialed media are routed and delayed through Gillette Stadium, nearly an hour away, before hitting campus.
It’s only a small reminder of what Harvard’s athletic communications office faces daily in its quest to promote Harvard athletes and their teams amidst a market with a high ratio of major sports teams per capita.
As Miller said, “There’s a lot of noise that we have to cut through to get our message across.”
Like most of the weekly preparation Harvard’s athletic communications office devotes to game days, the bi-weekly press box setup and army of credentialed media inside it will go unnoticed by the 15,000 fans who watch football throttle Brown the next day. But it symbolizes the coordination effort behind the Division I athletic program with the most teams in the nation—an effort that spans 42 varsity teams, from external media relations to an internal multimedia production apparatus that far outpaces its Ivy League peers.
“We say we’re telling Harvard’s story and putting it in its best light,” said Timothy J. Williamson, Harvard’s director of athletic communications. “It’s a lot of balancing when you have that many schedules to look at.”
When Williamson started at Harvard in 2007, he was the youngest of six to balance those schedules. Today, one staff member, two interns, and a multimedia director later, he leads a team of sports information directors, or SIDs, atop one of the busiest communications operations in the Ivy League.
Harvard’s athletic communications office is large, complex, influential, and often overlooked. Behind the scenes, it significantly affects both the way the media covers and the way the public views Harvard athletics.
On any given day in athletic communications, a drone may fly above Harvard Stadium to capture a “Crimson Football Skills” feature video on how to block a punt. An SID might organize the minute-by-minute video board content lineup for the team’s upcoming game. Others might interview athletes for “senior perspective” videos, update a Crimson sports Snapchat feed, or plan network coverage of a basketball scrimmage.
The changing face of a public relations industry today—one that relies as much on proprietary multimedia content as traditional story-pitching to the news media—pulls Williamson and his staff in several directions. While representatives from Harvard have long put out press releases about their teams’ performances in games, now there is more emphasis on creating alternative content to promote them.
“As we continue to move away from extended, written articles and releases, there is an ever-growing consumer reliability on visuals. This includes infographics, promotional pieces, video features, highlights...anything related,” said Brock Malone, an SID who represented Harvard at this year’s College Sports Information Directors of America convention.
Malone, whose first tour at Harvard was as an intern five years ago, is also one of its newest hires. The full-time communications staff has grown from eight to 10 since Williamson came on as director. Today, SIDs manage up to nine to 11 teams each, responsible for creating the full spectrum of promotional content—feature videos, season previews, game highlights, and freshman and senior athlete perspective videos, among others—that populates the department’s social media outlets for each of their teams.
All eight Ivy League teams have designated athletic communications offices, but Harvard’s far outpaces each of its peers in content and exposure. At 10 total members, the office is the largest in the league, although Harvard also has the most teams.
The staff also produces more content: At the Harvard-Brown football game, a walk through the press box showed the discrepancy in media content between both programs was almost as visible as that on the field. Brown’s game notes were 15 pages long; Harvard’s, professionally printed and emblazoned with the new departmental tagline Miller helped create—“Academic Integration and Competitive Excellence”—nearly doubled that. This does not include the glossy programs distributed, like at every Harvard home game, to fans and the media—a commitment Williamson said is rare among Ivy League departments.
When Williamson arrived at Harvard, sports information looked very different. “When I started here, we were still doing printed media guides, no video channel, streamed a couple of events but no highlights,” Williamson said.
Now, instead of just print materials, the Athletic Department promotes its teams through a range of mediums, with an emphasis online. “It’s been interesting to see how far we’ve gone from print to digital,” Williamson added.
A critical point in that transition came in early 2013, when Harvard became the first Ivy League athletics department to hire a full-time multimedia director. “I was starting from close to scratch,” said Imry Halevi, who was hired by Kurt Svoboda, Williamson’s predecessor, and has since seen two interns hired under him.
Halevi, in short order, gave Harvard athletics a league-leading multimedia presence. The communications office now boasts a YouTube channel with more than 6.1 million views and various feature videos uploaded daily, popular Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram platforms, and live streaming capabilities across 32 of the school’s 42 varsity teams. By comparison, Yale Athletics’s YouTube channel has about 850,000 views, and the average view count of the seven Ivy League athletics channels besides Harvard is about 380,000. Twitter and Facebook followers tell a similar story.
Halevi has a big job: He has technical responsibilities, but he also creates promotional content, editing videos and creating commercials, and does outreach throughout the Ivy League. His interns take on some content creation, freeing time for such “big picture planning and coordination with the Ivy League.” He has accordingly spent time both finding ways to expand streaming content to the Ivy League Digital Network, or ILDN, and finding TV partners to take his game productions.
The whiteboards surrounding his Murr Center desk, lined with schematics of camera positioning around an outdoor track, tell that story. He notes he will present soon to ILDN peers on streaming ideas for new sports, including track and field.
Meanwhile, the department is trying to expand its external streaming operation even further. By default, Harvard’s streaming goes to the ILDN, but it is “trying to find other avenues that have more built-in viewers,” such as ESPN3 and NESN, Halevi said.
“We want to increase our exposure in general,” Halevi said.
In recent years, expanding outside media interest in Harvard sports has further pushed Harvard’s communications network to grow as it responds to requests from journalists.
For Williamson, the global frenzy around Jeremy Lin ’10 and his rise to stardom on the New York Knicks in 2012—known as “Linsanity” nationwide—marked a turning point. He said that time was among his busiest on the job.
“I would wake up and have 200 emails from all over the place,” he said.
In the world of public relations, presenting Crimson sports to the outside world shifts between feeding external media demand and publishing internal multimedia content to promote the full range of 42 varsity sports.
“Part of our job is reactionary, and part of our job is supposed to be proactive,” Williamson said.
The athletic communications office, according to Williamson and his colleagues, likes to focus on the latter—publicizing teams through their own materials—when they can. Miller and her colleagues know well the “proactive” part of getting media attention in a saturated Boston sports market.
As Andrew Chesebro, associate director of athletic communications alongside Miller, characterizes the department’s challenge: “In this market we can’t just go out there and say our basketball team is doing well. What other reasons make our team interesting? That’s our challenge and our opportunity.”
To Chesebro, who serves as primary contact for men’s basketball, among six other sports, the answer lies in Harvard’s academic credentials. He said the communications office can leverage Harvard’s reputation as an academic institution to drum up interest.
“Where we have opportunities is that we are Harvard—we are so much more focused on the academics first than the athletics,” he said. “You really can have the best of both worlds, and that’s what our coaches have been stressing for as long as they’ve been here. So I see that as an opportunity. We just have to be strategic in how we are pitching that.”
As the department’s rapid buildup of multimedia capability under Halevi suggests, however, it is serious about promoting Harvard’s teams through its own content as well. That, according to communications officials, serves as a key tool for both attracting outside attention and for recruiting.
Said Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise of the communications office’s focus, “Not only do they have technical capabilities, they broadcast what we do and tell our story in-between the action through feature videos and what our student-athletes and programs do off the field.”
The feature videos, which each varsity team is guaranteed, are one of the department’s newest and most visible multimedia productions. The communications office is not independent—coaching staffs choose their topics of focus, according to Miller, that they think will best present their teams.
“Coaches have a lot of say in what we do and how we present their program, which is the way it should be,” she said, citing this year’s women’s rugby team “Why Rugby?” feature video—including interviews with players about their decision to play and B-roll footage of practice—as a boon for recruiting.
In the department’s emphasis on internal multimedia content Williamson sees an opportunity to attract the attention of news outlets.
"Through doing these things here with someone writing about it in their blog, tweeting about it, doing a feature video about it, there are ways we're trying to get the story out now," said Tim Williamson, Harvard's athletic communications director.
“There’s a whole traditional pitching-the-story-to-the-media of something—a volunteer experience, someone, up for the Rhodes scholarship, et cetera,” Williamson said. “But now through doing these things here with someone writing about it in their blog, tweeting about it, doing a feature video about it, there are ways we’re trying to get the story out now.”
“The media is more likely to pick it up, especially because they’ll have a scope of the story, which often makes it easier for them to frame it,” he added.
Making these videos, hundreds of special interviews, athlete blogs, highlights, and game and season recaps is a task that requires SIDs to wear many hats.
Williamson, for his part, oversees the entire department, acts as its main spokesperson, and is also the point person for several sports: football, women’s lacrosse, wrestling, and men’s and women’s fencing. For those sports, he is tasked with putting together game notes and coordinating feature videos and photos, plus working with outside media outlets who cover the teams.
And on the multimedia front, the department’s commitment to broadcast every home game live means Halevi and his team are in high demand. “Even if we have seven games at the same time, which happens, we provide coverage for everyone,” Halevi said.
“Pound for pound, we have the best staff anywhere,” Williamson said.
Williamson said he will never forget his busiest week as an SID early in his tenure at Harvard in November 2008. He was the most junior member of the communications office, and two of his teams (men’s and women’s soccer) both made their respective NCAA tournaments, while another (women’s hockey) was in season.
All in the span of a week around Thanksgiving, Williamson staffed a women’s hockey game at home, drove to UMass to staff the men’s soccer tournament, and returned to Harvard for another hockey game. He also flew across the country—to Tampa, for men’s soccer, and to Minnesota, for women’s hockey. Through all of this, he missed The Game.
“I went to games in Western Mass, Tampa, Minnesota, and Harvard all within a week,” Williamson said, still with a note of incredulity.
Through the noise that week, Williamson noticed a face in the press box at the UMass soccer game busily recording stats for the home team: Allison Miller, then in college there. She would join his office sometime later.
As much it shapes the image of Crimson sports to the outside world, Harvard’s athletic communications staff also significantly affects the athletes and media it interacts with on a day-to-day basis, regulating how reporters cover teams.
According to the Athletic Department’s media policy, all press requests must pass through Williamson’s office. Any members of the news media, the policy says, must obtain permission from an SID to speak with student-athletes “so as not to interfere with the students’ academic schedules.”
This policy is not unique among larger Division I schools, and The Crimson’s student journalists often interview athletes from some sports without going through a communications official first.
But for some of the higher profile teams, SIDs at Harvard manage requests and availability more carefully, weighing when to grant interviews with players and coaches to news outlets. Chesebro, as primary contact for men’s basketball, notes that “a substantial amount of my time is handling requests, because a lot more people want to focus on us and feature us.”
“A lot of it is figuring out what are good opportunities and what are opportunities that we can pass on to be efficient with everyone’s time,” he said.
Often, this means journalists are funnelled to regular, weekly media days following team practices. Chesebro said he tries to push media requests until the next regularly scheduled availabilities due to players’ academic and athletic commitments.
“Once a team is in season, it’s much harder to ask for a bigger block of time,” said Dick Friedman, who leads football coverage for Harvard Magazine. “[Head Football] Coach Murphy has things scheduled so strictly that you can’t go and say, ‘I want two hours with somebody,’ ‘I need this or that.’ You really have to be realistic, I think, about what you are going to get.”
Williamson promotes a department-wide policy of minimal demands on athletes’ media time: “We have the philosophy that we are not going to force anybody to speak, and we’re not going to tell anybody they can’t speak.”
Williamson and his staff also train teams in dealing with the media—“media training in the sense that if people reach out to you, come through us, don’t ever feel like you have to answer anything, we’ll coach you through it,” Williamson said. In some cases, particularly for some of the higher-profile teams, SIDs offer “heavier media training,” given that some teams have NCAA-mandated availabilities and press conferences which can be broadcast locally and nationally.
As elaborate as the system might seem, Harvard communications officials suggest that Harvard has a relatively strict interview request policy because the program gets more media interest than some peers. Williamson counts multiple stories in his tenure—from women’s hockey coach Katey Stone’s trip to the Olympic Games to Zack Hodges’s road to the National Football League—that flooded his office with requests. In a given week, his team hands out an average of almost 200 credentials for football games, 30 to 40 for men’s basketball, or 15 to 20 for men’s hockey. At last year’s edition of The Game, which hosted 50 from NBC Sports and an additional 75 for ESPN College GameDay, the office issued 400 credentials.
“There are so many people externally reaching out to you, and you still have your regular job,” Williamson said.
Indeed, for those who think of Harvard’s research and academics first, the demands on the the athletic communications staff might seem surprising. The 42 varsity sports, though, can be taxing.
Miller has more perspective on this than most, having spent four years in an SID role at Rutgers before Williamson hired her in 2013. For the University of Massachusetts graduate who crossed paths with Williamson in a soccer press box in 2008, Harvard is a change of scenery. Among other national storylines, having to handle the Mike Rice saga—in which the Rutgers men’s basketball coach was fired in 2013 for abusive behavior toward players—helped motivate her decision to come to Harvard.
“It’s a big difference—one of the things working here, versus at Rutgers, is that there’s a lot more freedom,” Miller said. “We don’t have to teach our players much; they give credit to their teammates and coaches. I used to have to do a lot more micromanaging.”
Still, that’s not to say that Harvard athletics has never seen scandal that communications officials had to manage. In 2012, a number of athletes—some high-profile—were implicated in the Government 1310 cheating scandal, Harvard’s largest in recent memory.
Williamson declined to comment on his office’s handling of that incident, which prompted roughly 70 students across the College to take time off, but it did attract significant media attention after Harvard’s central communications office announced the investigation. Sports Illustrated first reported the story that the co-captains of the men’s basketball team would withdraw from school in connection with the case, prompting a flood of coverage. And as individual athletes prepared for lineup changes in the wake of the cheating investigation, several reported fearing repercussions for speaking about it to The Crimson. When The Crimson followed up on the case a year later, coaches were instructed to direct inquiries to the communications office.
Outside of irregular news events, professional reporters acknowledge that players’ availability is limited partly because of their academic commitments. By nature, the Ivy League sets different parameters on media involvement than other conferences. Craig Larson of the Boston Globe, for his part, described Williamson’s response to his media requests as “very accommodating.”
Added Friedman, who before Harvard Magazine spent two decades at Sports Illustrated: “This isn’t professional ball, or even FBS ball. These are highly scheduled student athletes with high course loads and very busy lives, so you cannot impose on people like that.”
As for Crimson teams themselves, media coverage can also potentially provide a competitive advantage. “I think anytime there is large community-building type media coverage, if benefits all teams,” said Williamson, noting that many coaches have showed prospective athletes cuts of coverage from ESPN’s famous GameDay show when the program came to campus for The Game last year.
“We want to give every team as much attention as we can, but we have to pick and choose what we’re doing in order to make it the best product for everybody,” Williamson said. “We feel that we have a good story to tell, and the media buys into that.”
—Staff writer Nathan P. Press can be reached at email@example.com.