Hours before Utah’s football -home opener against Florida, Gators defensive end Princely Umanmielen shared a photo to Instagram of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
It was captioned: “Lil ah stadium.”
Sure, the 51,444-seat home of the Utes doesn’t compare to Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which seats 88,548. Rice-Eccles Stadium would be the second-smallest stadium in the SEC (only Vanderbilt’s FirstBank Stadium seats less at 40,350; the second-smallest stadium after Vanderbilt is Kentucky’s Kroger Field at 61,000), which has seven venues over 85,000 capacity.
But as Umanmielen learned, 53,644 — a Rice-Eccles Stadium record — can still make lots of noise. Who knows just how much the crowd noise disrupted Florida, which is used to working in hostile SEC environments, but the Gators did have three false starts and a delay of game penalty.
During Utah’s 24-11 win over Florida in the Gators’ first true nonconference road game outside of the Sunshine State since 1991, Umanmielen’s pregame post started spreading on social media.
The morning after the game, the Utah Athletics account responded with a post on social media.
“Lil ah dub.”
The post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, was viewed 2.1 million times, with over 20,000 likes and 4,700 retweets and got picked up by some big players in the social media space, like ESPN and Bleacher Report.
“It’s just stuff like that that can be really fun when you have some form of way of referencing it, whether it’s pop culture or something else fun, that you can have a little back-and-forth banter with another school,” said Nick Bolerjack, who helps run the Utah Athletics social media accounts.
“We try to keep it fun here. We try to keep it interesting for players and fans, but also within a realm of not getting personal or not trying to attack anybody else. Just trying to keep it fun and lighthearted.”
‘You have so many eyes on you now’
In the modern social media age, which started with Facebook circa 2004, sports teams’ social media accounts are big business. But it didn’t start out that way.
In the dawning of “Web 2.0,” some team social media accounts were run by marketing interns or public relations staff as another thing added to their plates.
Take a look at a sampling of Utah Athletics’ Twitter feed circa 2010, still in the early days of the site. Updates were few and far between. Photos and videos still hadn’t been integrated natively on the site.
Fast-forward to 2023, and the Utah Athletics X account tweeted or retweeted approximately 35 posts about Utah’s 55-3 win over Arizona State last Saturday, complete with original photos and videos, clips of the Pac-12 Network broadcast and custom-made graphics.
As more and more people started joining social media and spending increased time on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, brands — including sports teams — figured out that social media was a valuable way to connect with their fans and get information out.
In less than 20 years’ time from when Facebook first started, social media has become a full-fledged industry. “Social media intern” is a way some folks refer to the people behind sports teams’ social media accounts, but the industry has moved past that long ago. Nowadays, teams like Utah employ a full-time staff of social and creative employees.
Eight people are listed under the “digital and creative media” section in Utah Athletics’ staff directory, from social media employees to photographers to videographers.
Nick Bolerjack, son of longtime Utah Jazz TV broadcaster Craig Bolerjack, is the director of social media and digital strategy for Utah Athletics, working with Matt Sanchez, who is the athletic department’s associate athletics director for digital and creative media.
Nick Bolerjack worked for the Utah Jazz from 2015 to 2020 as part of their social media and photography team before taking a job at Utah to head up men’s basketball social media in 2021. From there, he moved to helming the main Utah Athletics account on all social platforms.
The evolution that Bolerjack has seen over the past eight years that he’s been working in social media has happened at warp speed. The importance of social media has heightened to the point that it’s the first place major sports news, like NBA trades, breaks.
“It’s kind of crazy how it evolved so quick, and I feel like when I began to get into the social media realm is when it really started to develop from something that was, I don’t know if they necessarily really didn’t take it too seriously, but it wasn’t really like a go-to for a lot of information. And now it is the go-to place for breaking news,” Bolerjack said.
With increased eyeballs (Utah Athletics has more than 120,000 followers on X, more than 76,000 on Instagram and more than 184,000 on Facebook) comes increased attention. But it can also mean increased scrutiny.
“Basically, you really have to realize that you have so many eyes on you now. Everything that you put out there, if you misspell a word or if you slip up or if you have the wrong information on there, there’s a ton of eyeballs watching,” Bolerjack said. “... Especially a brand account like at Utah Athletics, you’re not only representing the athletes, but you’re representing the university as a whole. A lot of the time sports is kind of the gateway into a university.”
What does a typical game day look like?
Those 35-plus posts that show up on your feed during the game don’t just show up out of thin air, though it may seem that way.
Bolerjack and team’s social media planning for fall Saturdays start well before kickoff, beginning at the start of the week.
“It’s not something that we just show up and hope that everything goes well,” Bolerjack said.
There’s content planning meetings, ideas meetings and coordination meetings with photographers and videographers, all to make sure that when game day arrives, everything works as smoothly as possible.
Of course, during the week, there’s more content to post. On the football side, that includes everything from a rankings update graphic to hype videos to uniform reveals to highlighting what players won various weekly awards to a preplanned graphic poking a little fun at the opposing team if Utah wins.
Utah has graphic designers that make images for social media, and even have a dedicated graphic designer that designs all of the recruiting materials — envelopes, letter and personalized graphics for each player Utah is recruiting.
From his perch in the press box, Bolerjack also helps run the Utah football specific accounts on game day, in addition to the Utah Athletics account. He arrives more than three hours before kickoff, making sure people are getting photos of the tailgates, team arrival and other pregame activities, like a helicopter flyover, before everyone on the social team gets in position for the game.
Once the ball is booted through the air for the first time, it’s controlled chaos.
Videographers texting in that they got the perfect shot, Bolerjack reminding photographers to get shots of a football alumnus who is at the game. Photographers and videographers uploading their content in nearly real time to be posted right after a touchdown happens.
Devaughn Vele opens scoring for Utah against Arizona State, and nearly instantaneously, there’s a clip of the touchdown from the game broadcast up, photos of the touchdown posted and a score graphic posted with Vele’s face on it in the span of less than five minutes.
This process repeats every time Utah scores or makes a big defensive play, and on Saturday, that was a lot in the Utes’ bounce-back win over the Sun Devils.
“There’s a lot of coordinating, a lot of text messages flying around throughout the game,” Bolerjack said.
If Utah’s losing big, like it did in a 35-6 loss to Oregon, things can be a little quieter.
The Utah Football X account posted just five times after kickoff, and aside from a final score post, tweeted nothing after posting a graphic of Cole Becker after he kicked a field goal in the first quarter to make it 7-3.
As for the Utah Athletics X account, it posted only five times during the loss to Oregon, including a link to the postgame press conference and a retweet of former Utah safety and Washington Commanders player Terrell Burgess that read: “Still love the Utes.”
“Depending on how the game goes, it can be a flurry of text messages and posts and all that good stuff. Or if it doesn’t go your way, it can be kind of quiet during a game day. So it all just depends on the flow of the game and how the team’s doing,” Bolerjack said.
Last Saturday in a Utah win, game day content ends with a little jab at Arizona State — a graphic of a pitchfork being tossed to the ground — access inside the locker room as the players sing the fight song and a livestream of the postgame press conference.
The impact of ‘College GameDay’
The day after Utah knocked off USC on the road, which was already a big day in terms of social engagements, ESPN’s “College GameDay,” the three-hour traveling pregame show, announced it was heading to Salt Lake City for the Utah vs. Oregon matchup.
What followed was basically a weekend-long promotion of the university on ESPN. It started with a bang on Friday afternoon, when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was coaxed into riding into his “The Pat McAfee Show” appearance on a motorcycle, wearing sunglasses and a cutoff shirt to match McAfee’s shtick.
From there, it was on to the main event, which officially started on Saturday at 7 a.m. MDT, but was even earlier for the social media crew, who started sending out videos from the set at Presidents Circle around 5 a.m. MDT.
From behind-the-scenes footage from the “GameDay” set, videos and pictures of the crowd and highlighting the best signs, Utah’s social accounts accentuated the “GameDay” broadcast.
In all, Bolerjack said Utah’s social media had about 5 million “impressions,” aka views, on its content that week and its follower count across all platforms saw a big spike.
“Basically 5 million people saw our content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc., which was huge for us. To have 5 million eyes on our content is massive,” Bolerjack said.
It can’t hurt in recruiting to have a strong social media presence, either, especially in the age of NIL. Recruits aren’t choosing schools based on which has the best social media team, after all, but it could be a positive if a recruit is seriously considering Utah.
‘They’re not just an athlete, they’re a person’
As an extension of the program, the social media team can get access to players and coaches that isn’t afforded to the general media in this age of closed practices, limited media availability and carefully timed interview sessions.
Bolerjack tries to make the most of that access, highlighting a video he produced on running back Ja’Quinden Jackson recently.
“I’ve always preached that access to athletes is key. Whether it’s getting a chance to talk to them about something personal or their interests. We actually just had a tattoo piece go out on Ja’Quinden Jackson, our running back, and that got a really good response,” Bolerjack said.
“So it’s always nice to kind of humanize athletes. A lot of people just see them on the field or on the court of play, and it’s always nice just to give an in-depth look to them, to humanize them. They’re not just an athlete, they’re a person. There’s a real person out there with feelings and emotions.”
In the two-minute video, Jackson shares the reasoning for some of his tattoos, including the “22 forever” symbol he got to remember teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, who died in 2021 and 2022.
“Them is my boys and brothers forever. I still got them on my mind every day, I’m still grinding for them,” Jackson said.
He also has tattoos to memorialize his grandfather and some of his friends who died, along with a tattoo of his Utah jersey.
Utes on the air
No. 18 Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12)
at No. 5 Washington (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
“It’s my scars. I say that. These are my life scars,” Jackson said of his tattoos.
At the end of the day, getting to interact with the players and coaches and try to tell their stories to the fanbase is a big reason why Bolerjack enjoys the job.
“It’s also fun to interact with them because they really are just awesome people. When you get to know all these kids, it’s just really fun to work with them and see things from their perspective,” Bolerjack said.
“Same with the coaches. They’re working day and night constantly, no breaks, trying to make sure that the program is up to snuff. I can’t say enough about just being able to work with the coaches and players. It really is a great time. It puts things into perspective. It kind of gives me a reason why I still enjoy working in sports, just interacting with coaches and players.”