USA Today Ventures successfully moved two profitable events into a virtual space

By Summer Moore

USA Today Network Ventures

Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA


When the world realised we were going to be working and socialising from home for more than a few weeks, many businesses had to rethink what they did. 

For events companies, it was a threat to our very survival. USA Today Network Ventures had serious revenue on the line; how could we deliver without putting people at risk?

While some events had to be cancelled, we pivoted two of our highest-profile events High School Sports Awards and American Influencer Awards to a virtual space.

Since it was already March, we only had a few months to put together 60 virtual High School Sports Awards shows. The original events were scheduled for May and June.

Our High School Sports Awards is a nine-month programme where newsrooms pick honorees from most state-sanctioned sports throughout the year. Fall sports are announced at the end of that season, winter sports next, etc.

In the end, we had four groups of people to appease: newsrooms, sponsors, students, and fans.

The newsrooms understood and got behind the idea quickly; the sponsors were willing to work with us as well. We were able to save most of them because of loyalty to both the programme and the student athletes — plus, our sales teams are just that good.

But we knew we had to make a show that would draw numbers for them.

Going big while staying home

We did that by bringing in top-notch talent. Typically, our live events will have one big-name athlete, usually from the area we are in. We had already booked most of our guest talent for the summer: Michael Phelps was scheduled for Oklahoma City; Drew Brees was scheduled for Austin; and Emmitt Smith for Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Waxahachie and Sherman, Texas.

Using OpenReel, USA Today Network Ventures was able to produce a top-quality show with big-name athletes.
Using OpenReel, USA Today Network Ventures was able to produce a top-quality show with big-name athletes.

We knew we needed to retain this sizzle and go even bigger to bring excitement to an on-demand streaming show. Instead of having one guest speaker for a Q&A and motivational talk, we decided to have talent from each sport present the student athlete awards. The students would hear their names being said by some of the biggest names in their sport.  

We reached out and secured several big names, including Venus Williams, Stephen Curry, Patrick Mahomes, Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps, Wayne Gretzky, and Bill Belichick.

With the world in lockdown, filming was a logistical challenge. We didn’t want to rely on Internet connections or resort to the lower-quality videos from apps like Zoom or Skype. So, we invested in a relatively new app called OpenReel, which allowed our video team to remotely direct filming, control some aspects of lighting and sound, and adjust the teleprompter. Some sessions were more than three hours of filming time, and we are so thankful to all the talent for working from their homes and being flexible enough to set up the equipment.

Our star video team then built a show that rivaled the best there is. We like to say our shows are like the ESPYs, and these were no different.

The entire team worked long hours to edit video, compile student bios, proofread names, and so much more. Finally, on the night of June 18, they went live.

The feedback was incredible. Our newsrooms, sponsors, and the audience were amazed at the talent we got. Social media blew up with students saying things like, “Steph Curry just said my name!”

The shows amassed more than 193,000 views. It was so successful that we decided to again provide an on-demand streaming awards show in the fall.

This time, we went even bigger. We added awards programmes to every state, produced state shows, and held a national show for the first time. Unlike in 2020 when spring sports were completely cancelled, in 2021 — despite many very late schedules — we were determined to honour all the spring sports we could include. This meant additional talent for the shows and pushing the schedule until June and July. 

Celebrating influencers

For the American Influencer Awards, we faced the same problem. We were planning on a live event but as the summer wore on, we knew again that we would have to do something virtual.

In 2020, the AIAs again were aimed at celebrating the biggest and best in beauty. After an open nomination from the public, ballots are created with help from the American Influencer Association board. Then the public votes on the finalists. Last year saw more than double the nominations and votes than the previous year.

We found two great hosts, Frankie Grande and Kandee Johnson — two huge names in the beauty influencer space — and flew a small group to Los Angeles to film with them and a few other key influencers who announced some of the awards.

A small group of influencers were flown to Los Angeles to film the American Influencer Awards programme.
A small group of influencers were flown to Los Angeles to film the American Influencer Awards programme.

The video needed some storytelling moments, so our amazing video team came up with a “beauty is bold” segment that let the influencers talk about what beauty meant to them. It was a moving part of the show. 

That virtual show was also successful (over 87,000 views). We hope to do something live this year, but we will likely have a virtual element as well.

In the end, our pivot allowed us to meet the revenue we made in 2019, which was nearly unheard of for an event company during a pandemic. We are proud of what we did and are excited to take what we learned and apply it to our goals moving forward. 

About Summer Moore

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