Justin King can pinpoint, to the day, when he became a South Carolina football fan. That day he also unknowingly set himself on a path that has both shaped his career, and brought him back to where it all began.
When King, who turns 29 this month, arrived at USC from Myrtle Beach in 2006, “I knew nothing about Carolina football,” he said. “The (season-opening) game they played at Mississippi State, I was sitting in an apartment watching on TV, hearing other (students) doing cheers and chants – and then I was doing them, too.”
After USC’s 15-0 win, “we ran outside, and you heard from other apartments, ‘Game!’ and ‘Cocks!’ And I thought: This is a part of who I am now.”
Starting Monday, King has a newly-created position – Associate Athletics Director for New and Creative Media – and a mission to help his alma mater enhance its sports identity in the new world of social media and digital access, ranging from YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram to message boards at Williams-Brice Stadium, Colonial Life Arena and other venues.
Like his own genesis as a fan, King said all of that has come as something of a surprise.
After graduation in 2010 with a media arts degree, wondering where to look for work, King saw a football video on USC’s Internet message board that “was really bad,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s not as good as it could be. I think I’ll give it a shot.’ ”
That effort – blending video and music, but no words, to tell a story – prompted a friend to suggest he submit it to ESPN. “I thought, ‘Yeah, right’ – and then I ended up getting a job there” as a production assistant, King said.
Thus, when USC athletics director Ray Tanner and senior associate athletics director Charles Bloom were looking to bring the athletics department’s media outreach into the 21st century, they were already familiar with the handiwork. Since 2010, King had become a fan favorite by creating more Gamecocks videos – at home, on his own time.
“It helped that it snowed a lot in Bristol (Conn.),” he said with a laugh.
King, a senior managing producer for AL.com in Alabama since 2013, leaped at the opportunity to return to Columbia. Since ESPN, he’d been “trying to get better at editing, story-telling, creating content and how to market myself.”
His hiring comes at a crucial moment at USC.
Football coach Will Muschamp understands the positive impact social media can have on a team (the coach’s Twitter account has 187,000 followers, ninth among NCAA football coaches) – not just in telling the Gamecocks’ story to fans, but also in selling it to potential recruits. Basketball’s Frank Martin and Dawn Staley also are tech-savvy, while Chad Holbrook’s Twitter feed is No. 1 among college baseball coaches.
For King’s primary audience – the 18-34-year-old demographic that includes high school athletes – messages that resonate come in 10-, 20- and 30-second bursts, known as “hype” videos, viewed on smart-phones and other mobile devices.
“Justin provides an expertise that probably we didn’t have as a priority,” Bloom said. Before, “we were doing long-form features, written and video. What we weren’t doing was the short-form things so popular today – at least, not to the level Justin will provide.”
“I need Justin to teach me how to tell a story in 10 seconds,” he said.
Already, King is planning what USC’s outreach looks like in the future. For instance, Bloom said, King plans to spend time in spring practice with USC’s football grounds crew.
“He wants to be there when they’re lining the fields,” Bloom said. “That video” – along with such artistic shots as close-ups of athletes’ sweating brows, or sessions in the weight room – “means we’re getting ready for the season.”
With Tanner’s blessing, King will assemble a team whose job is to capture many such moments, and share them with fans and recruits.
“Distribution is the key,” King said. “You have to blend creativity and analytics: what has had success, what do the numbers say. Coach Tanner and (Bloom) get it. We’ll have all the tools, and be able to change direction based on what the data tells us.
“It’s more than posting a Tweet or sending out a Snap. It’s capturing moments, creating content that has heart. When we do that, we will succeed.”
King and his bosses avoid comparisons, but the athletics/social media gold standard exists some 125 miles northwest, where Clemson under Joe Galbraith and Jonathan Gantt has built a reputation as industry leaders, among NCAA schools but even internationally. All those videos of Dabo Swinney dancing in the locker room after wins have been by design. And they’ve worked to build a brand.
Just as Muschamp hopes to lead USC to the stratosphere the Tigers reached last season, King wants that level of media success – though, like the coach, he said the “competition” isn’t Clemson, but himself.
“My job … is producing the best content I can. I’m just trying to tell the best stories possible,” he said. “And the digital landscape, there’s no better way to reach fans and recruits.”
Still, as with Muschamp, the best packaging falls flat without results. King experienced some of USC’s greatest football seasons from 2010-2013, and he believes all USC sports are poised to offer him the material to tell stories that will thrill and engage his audience.
How will he know his work is a success?
“When South Carolina is in Atlanta, lifting up the SEC Championship trophy,” King said. That day, he plans to be there to capture the moment – and share the experience, vividly, with the world.