Today’s “While We’re Waiting” post features another installment of the new “Getting to Know You” series. Thus far, there have been featured guests from the Cleveland Indians, Crain’s Cleveland, Cleveland Browns and Pritt Entertainment Group.
This time around: We’re venturing down I-71 to learn more about TJ Ansley, Director of Digital Media for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The picture above? That’s TJ at FC Barcelona’s stadium. You’ll learn more about that opportunity, his journey around professional sports from Michigan to Ohio to Oregon, and his relatively recent return back to Ohio in the Q&A below. You can follow TJ on Twitter at @tjansley and on Instagram at @tjansley.
WFNY: So, where did you grow up and how did you get started in sports?
TJ Ansley: I grew up in western Ohio in a really small town named Anna, Ohio. Growing up, I played all the sports. We didn’t have football, so not that. But I played baseball, basketball, golf. I tried to play baseball in college but that didn’t really work out too well.
While I was in college at Eastern Michigan, I joined a fraternity and one of my fraternity brothers had an internship with the Detroit Tigers. I worked in intramurals all throughout college so I was always active in sports. The internship really peaked my interest in the industry. I was a big baseball fan and I had a chance to join the Tigers after the season since someone else went back to school.
They just needed someone in the promotions department. My fraternity brother and I were driving together to downtown Detroit. There were some interesting stories there, for sure. But we were giving prizes to fans, working the scoreboard operations, and I got to have some first-hand knowledge of how that works during a game. Being in college, you’re loving it, you’re care-free, and I was just starting to develop a sense of sports as a business.
WFNY: What brought you to Eastern Michigan in the first place and what did you study?
TJ Ansley: It’s about 2.5 hours from home, so it wasn’t too far away. I could always drive back pretty easily.
I started off doing telecommunications, which was a weird name for just video production. I started off doing that because it hoped it was more than just video only. But then, they had a newer degree that came out – communications technology – which was everything kind lumped in together with some marketing, accounting, video production, graphic design, web design. That all kind of encircled everything and it’s what I’m doing now, so I couldn’t have asked for a better major.
WFNY: So, going back to how you got started in sports. How did things progress from that first opportunity?
TJ Ansley: With the Tigers, I went from working at the end of the season, then a full internship the next season, and then working games part-time. I then started working for an agency in Detroit that dealt with Ford Racing. I did similar things with promotions during races, setting up event marketing, enter-to-win contests, and working with Ford dealerships that were in racing as a means to marketing. Indirectly, it was still sports, but it was motorsports.
From there, I got a job in sports radio with a station WWJ-WXYT that did both news and sports. I did marketing promotion and event set-up again, but this was the time when radio stations started to realize that they had a website and wanted to produce some content for it. Obviously, with a news and sports station, there’s a ton of content out there. In terms of sports, they had the Tigers, Red Wings and Lions, and they were the flagship station. And we started to do some podcasting, which was a newer thing then. We were out on the forefront of that.
I remember in a content meeting we had at one point and I said, “Let’s start a Twitter account for this.” And I can’t remember how many people laughed at me because of the name, “Twitter.”1And now, everyone’s doing it. It was cool to be out in front of that and seeing how it came to be like it is now.
WFNY: So, obviously you started in Detroit, then Portland2 and now Columbus. How did this all come to pass?
TJ Ansley: After working in Detroit, I moved down to Columbus. I wanted to be a bit closer to home. So I got a job with the Columbus Crew and did all of their content, web, social. I kind of helped build that out for the Crew, as previously that was under BAM control for all of MLS, but then each team over time built up their own platform. They still had a CMS built from the league, but teams would have their own voice and their own content.
They had a job posting, I jumped in there, started producing all this content, and I hired the first video person they had there and a content person too. It was my first foray into building a team and we were able to tell a story in a smaller market, especially for one of the original MLS teams. Fans here in Columbus are unique, in a good way, and they have a story to tell as well.
I then met my previous boss, Dewayne Hankins, who used to work for the LA Galaxy3. We met at a conference at the MLS SuperDraft and we knew each other from what we both did in the league. After he left the Galaxy, he went to the Trail Blazers before I did, and I knew he was going to build up a new department there. He asked me and, despite being a Midwestern guy, the chance was enticing.
So I think Dewayne was smart to bring me out to Portland in July. It’s absolutely beautiful out there then. I brought my wife out there, we spent the weekend, learned about the organization and what they were trying to do. And so we made the jump. We had a 5-month-old at the time and if there was a time to do it, that was the time to do it.
At Portland, I had a really good chance to build a department again, but also have a lot of resources. They were a really forward-thinking organization and always thinking a few steps ahead. It was also true in data analytics, not only in how to sell more tickets, but in making processes easier for fans to buy those tickets. Being in digital, you obviously touch every department and it was cool to get that experience.4
Then, once I saw a position open in Columbus again, with my son about to enter kindergarten, we felt we wanted to do this. I wasn’t following hockey as a sport much, so not knowing that was nerve-wracking at first, but after being here eight months now, it’s been cool.
Hockey, it’s a very different kind of sport. You’ve got to see it live! It’s very exciting. To see a young organization, this is only the 17th year, it’s cool to see this organization and fanbase grow. Now, they’re into that second generation of a fan. They started in 2000, so now fans are 18 years old who were born in 2000. It’s crazy. Now, we’re thinking of ways to market to that younger demographic and find ways to grow the fanbase even more.
WFNY: Describe some of your day-to-day responsibilities. Obviously, you started just eight months ago. So, what were your gameday responsibilities like during the past season?
TJ Ansley: For all the different teams and organizations I’ve worked with, it’s always a matter of keeping up to date with the platforms. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, those are all free platforms. So, how do you keep up with them in an organic way? You don’t want to force “Buy tickets to tomorrow’s game!” and push that on Twitter. That’s not what those platforms are used for. You sort of have to train yourself to see what other sports teams or even brands are doing. You want to be part of the conversation, use the platform what it’s used for, and always evolve in what you’re trying to do.
Coming in the middle of the season, I obviously wanted to be here for every game. And in any type of digital position, you have to let people know that you are working away games too. People are paying attention to our Twitter feed when we’re in LA or Colorado or something like that.
For some of the game day duties, I try to force it on myself too. I want to make sure all the activations go off as planned. If I see something that’s not going as planned, I’ll put it in Slack or text somebody. Game nights at home, we’re going to have a lot more content than we will on the road, obviously.
WFNY: So … what you’re saying is that the person running the Twitter account, contrary to occasional belief, isn’t an intern?!
TJ Ansley: I know fans don’t know exactly what goes on behind the scenes of a sports team. But if you trust a brand to leave that to an intern, you’re foolish. On Twitter or on Facebook, that’s like your first line of a communication to that brand. Of course, there’s not only just scripted, strategic things that go into what we tweet, we do tweet off the cuff too. But if there is a sports team that’s having an intern run their account, I’d love to meet them.
WFNY: How is your department organized?
TJ Ansley: We have social and digital coordinators. One, mainly focused on Twitter, Facebook, website with content. The other, who just started, is a former intern of ours and will be in charge of Instagram, Snapchat and also the website. The website is obviously a big driver here in terms of tickets and sponsorships. For both of them, they’re thinking of the content, how can it be sponsored, how can it be interactive with our fans.
We also have a beat writer who travels to all games, who travels on the team plane, and he’ll write recaps, previews and any type of storyline that he can think of. It’s not in our department, technically, but we also have our video producer too. Most of his duty is for social, but he also does have some responsibility for sponsorships, concerts and the arena. This year, he’s going to go to all of the road games, so that will be pretty cool to get more behind-the-scenes footage that we’ve only had a little bit of in the past.
WFNY: What is your favorite thing about what you do at work?
TJ Ansley: It’s fairly nerdy, but I love the fact that you can connect all these data points5. Let’s take Wi-Fi for example. We hadn’t had the opportunity to collect all that data in a real-time fashion before. So, if I have 5,000 people logging into Wi-Fi at one time, I should know that and maybe be able to push out some content to them. I should push out a game recap to them and that could drive 5,000 page views, 5,000 email clicks, etc.
Or let’s say Jimmy, we know he’s logged into Wi-Fi, maybe let’s give him a prize. To me, that’s a lot of information and it nerds me out, but it’s a different thing. The tweeting and all that is fun, but connecting all the dots together is what’s really cool to me.
WFNY: What neighborhood do you live in now in Columbus and what is your family life like?
TJ Ansley: Everything happened kind of fast. I saw the job posting and reached out to my current boss and put out some feelers. Things kind of progressed pretty quickly. I actually had promised to go on a trip for a conference and speak at the FC Barcelona symposium, which was a once-in-a-lifetime type thing and I couldn’t just cancel that. So that happened just a week before I had to move.
So, eventually, my brother-in-law found a house just a street over from them. They walked us through the realtor and all that. We knew the neighborhood [Galena] and he basically did all the paperwork before my wife and I did that trip to Barcelona. We had never stepped foot in that house before the FaceTime we did walking through it. The Sunday before I started was actually the first day I stepped in that house. That Monday, my first day at work, that’s when we actually closed on the house. Now, the real estate market in Columbus is going through the roof and we were just lucky to get it settled like that.
I have two kids, Hudson and Phoebe. Phoebe just turned 4. Hudson is almost 6. So we’re doing the whole thing of starting school and all that. We’re happy to be back in Ohio and really excited to push the Blue Jackets forward with a lot of this digital work to come.
- Writer’s Note: For historical accuracy, technically it was Twittrr at the very beginning for a brief period. Didn’t spell it that way so as to avoid confusion and corrections. But check out that rough initial website design. [↩]
- Writer’s Note: Jacob and TJ actually overlapped during their time periods in Oregon. Jacob was an MBA student at the University of Oregon. TJ was in his several years working for the Trail Blazers. [↩]
- Writer’s Note: Hankins also may be the most internet-famous for his work with the LA Kings during the same time period, 2012-ish. The Kings were doing such great Twitter work that it even received praise from Deadspin, which is always a rare accomplishment. [↩]
- Writer’s Note: The Trail Blazers consistently rank among the most well-liked and interactive social media followings in professional sports. It’s not hard to find article after article after article praising their efforts. In the months following TJ’s departure, they also hired Amara Baptist from the Memphis Grizzlies. [↩]
- Writer’s Note: TJ also gave a shoutout to the Blue Jackets’ relationship with KORE Software, the company that I work for in my non-WFNY life. But I’ll spare you the details of that and just move it on down here to the footnotes, instead. [↩]