Athletics Embraces the New Virtual Normal
By Ron Wagner ’93
With the fields closed, stadiums locked and games canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might have noticed that Furman Athletics has been finding new ways to engage Paladin fans.
The choice was an easy one for Erin Wissing, and athletics’ communications team, which went to work immediately turning the very real possibility of irrelevance into a seized opportunity for unprecedented exposure and public presence.
As anyone who follows a Furman account on social media knows by now, coaches and their families, student-athletes and other staff rolled out a slew of new hashtags and virtual events during the first two months after the campus closed in March. Among the most popular were the launch of a virtual “Lunch & Learn” series on Tuesdays and the “Bernardi Challenge” at-home workouts.
The Bernardi Challenge was an offshoot of the virtual workouts Furman Director of Speed, Strength and Conditioning André Bernardi and his wife, Kaitlyn, the assistant director of speed, strength and conditioning, began sharing to give athletes ways to stay fit at home. Interest on social media prompted the Bernardis to begin posting exercises geared toward fans.
“I was a little bit surprised at the feedback and the number of views we got,” says André Bernardi. “I was glad we got to reach some people and help some people maintain during the situation we were in.”
He chuckles when asked if it was difficult to come up with new workouts.
“Honestly, no. If you said, ‘Hey, come up with a workout right now that’s 20 minutes long,’ that’s what we do,” says Bernardi, adding that providing variety was bit more of a challenge. “There are only so many body-weight movements, so at the same time, I didn’t want to be repetitive.”
Other initiatives include #FollowFriday, “On This Date in Furman History” and #TeammateTuesday. According to data tracked by SkullSparks.com, Furman ranked anywhere from 11th to 23rd nationally, depending on the platform, among Football Championship Subdivision schools for social media interaction in March and April.
That’s an impressive accomplishment for a university with one of the smallest enrollments of any NCAA Division I school in the country.
Furman Athletics Director Jason Donnelly has stressed community and teamwork internally during a time of unprecedented challenge facing athletics programs everywhere, and the embrace of that has helped his team rise to the moment.
“I think our department has gotten stronger,” he says. “The three things I’ve been emphasizing have been communication, productivity and accountability. And it’s really been focused on are we supporting our student-athletes, are we supporting each other, and are we connecting with our community?”
Donnelly emphasizes the contributions of those around him.
“We’ve had an opportunity to focus on things that we weren’t able to focus on before,” he says. “And my hat’s off to our external team led by Erin Wissing, (Director of Marketing and Fan Experience) Ty Osborne, (Associate Athletics Director/Athletic Communications) Hunter Reid and (Assistant Director of Creative Services) Carly Rose.”
Perhaps nothing has been a bigger hit for students than the “FUSPYS” in April. The FUSPYs, inspired by ESPN’s ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Awards show, have become an annual tradition, and the athletic department was able to pull off the banquet with virtual technology.
In fact, the highlight was an award that was only possible because of virtual technology: a TikTok challenge between the teams. TikTok is an app for making and sharing short videos, and the FUSPYS crowned women’s cross-country as the champion.