One of the great aspects of our summer high school sports business program at Columbia , and the one we do with The School of the New York Times, is watching so many young people grow, and also learning from them, and Tommy Rothman is certainly a great example of how these programs can help all succeed.
If was four summers ago when we first met Tommy; quiet, inquisitive, passionate about sports. Today he is not only the Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, he has built quite a niche with his platform Knicks Memes, to the point where he became a little bit of a media star around the recent Charles Oakley debacle with the team.
We though it would be good to talk to Tommy about his work in the space, what he is doing now, how it all played together and what advice he has for others, older or younger, looking to carve a niche.
How did you come up with the Knicks Memes platform and when?
I started it in the summer of 2012 (a few months after taking a summer class with that Joe Favorito guy). I was posting about the Knicks all the time on my own Facebook page, and all my friends were like, “Tommy, stop posting about the Knicks and clogging my newsfeed.” So I decided to make a separate page just for that. There was a big “NBA Memes” page and a few other team-specific pages, so I figured I could do what I like best— being a jokester— and find a market for it.
What is typical traffic and engagement like?
It really changes. On Facebook, it used to be bigger compared to the audience. But now Facebook doesn’t really show a lot of your posts to many of the people who “Like” your page— they have an algorithm and they decide who wants to see what (even though people who chose to like a page, in my opinion, have chosen to see all of that page’s content). I have nearly 92,000 followers on Facebook, 17 K on Twitter (@KnicksMemes because the full name didn’t fit) and over 14 K on Instagram. I don’t really use the NewYorkKnicksMemes.com anymore, mostly because Facebook’s algorithm change started punishing pages who posted links to outside websites, but I would get thousands, sometimes up to around 30 K hits on a post, and I think it totaled up to over a Million. Engagement is usually solid, given how many people see the posts. And especially on Twitter, a solid bit of content will blow up pretty easily.
What kind of doors has it opened up for you, who have you met to help you grow the platform?
Aside from the obvious (résumé stuff, something to put on my college application, a good conversation topic, and a few moments of minor celebrity when people recognize me at MSG, work, or even school), I’ve gotten to do some cool things like interviewing players, running group events for games at MSG, and most recently a televised appearance on the Channel 5 Fox News! In general, it’s also set me up to pursue (and land) other sportswriting gigs. I wouldn’t really say I’ve met people who have helped me grow it, but any time somebody enjoys your content and shares it on their own platforms, that does help it spread!
Where would you like to see it continue to grow?
Well, I’m pretty thrilled with where it is now in terms of the follower count. I’d be more thrilled of more of my followers could see my posts, so part of that means I need to figure out how to game the algorithm better while maintaining good content, and part of that is hoping the algorithm changes. I would like the follower count to grow on Twitter and Instagram because on that platform, your followers DO see most of your posts.
How has your work at the Daily Pennsylvanian helped you grow as a member of the media?
Well— and people are sometimes surprised by this— I’m not planning on making my career in media. I’m hoping to (hell-bent on, actually) work in sports, ideally representing a team, league, or player(s). I’d much rather make things happen than write about them when they do. I worked for the Mets last summer, am hoping to do something similar this summer, and then hoping to land a great job when I graduate UPenn next year and my “real” career begins. But during my time at Penn, working for the Daily Pennsylvanian has helped me gain a better understanding of how the media operates in a more formal context— journalistic standards, objective writing- et cetera. It’s also made me well aware of how hard it can be to get your content in front of people. A lot of people care about the Knicks. Not many people care about Penn Athletics these days. I love working for the DP and it’s been a very valuable experience being a Sports Editor, but I wouldn’t call it a huge step on the ladder of growth in my media career— that’s not a ladder I think I’m really trying to climb.
What are some of the best practices you have learned since the platform was launched?
Just to list a few off the top of my head… Be creative. Make good content. Be timely and topical. You need to make sure your content will appeal to an audience, know that audience, and then— this is obviously the hard part— get it to that audience. Start off sharing your work with people you know, and your audience can grow exponentially… but don’t rely on just the people you know. If I couldn’t find and work channels outside of my own family and friends, I wouldn’t have gotten very far at all with NYKM. Protect your work— realize people will share what they enjoy, but might do it without credit, and might go out of their way to mask the credit. Use watermarks, have ways to prove you came up with something, and be proactive if you see somebody shared it without credit. Forming relationships in the digital space is very important, although obviously not quite as important as forming relationships outside of it. There are a lot of things I have learned and things I have worked well for me— those ones come to mind right now.
When events like the Oakley situation arrive, how are you able to take advantage of them?
There’s one thing I always tell people makes my job as a “Knicks Comedian” much easier: The Knicks are hilarious. They’re usually a mess. Oakley is Exhibit A. Actually, we had tickets to that game and didn’t go— our seats are right next to the tunnel, so I would have been right where the Oakley action was. I could have had some viral video content there, like seriously viral. But I did get some great content that got spread pretty well at the next game, when I was in attendance. The most widespread thing I got was a video of one of the Oakley chants. A few platforms reached out to me wanting to use the video… one thing led to another and the FOX Channel 5 News was coming to my house, interviewing me and incorporating a televised spot about me and my page in their segment on the whole Oakley thing. This answer probably doesn’t give a more general “rule of thumb” for those TYPES of situations. If I had to answer the question more broadly, I’d take it back to the piece of advice I gave earlier: Be timely. Be ready.
Do you have plans for other verticals?
Well I don’t think I’ll be starting any other meme pages soon. I usually create quick one-off memes about my friends, the DP, Penn, the Mets, hockey, whatever— but I think Knicks Memes is the only actual platform I’m making for that stuff. And again, I’m not planning on making media a career, at least not as first. If I can become an established “expert” in various fields related to the sports industry, I might do a little blogging about it on the side later on— as you’ve done! For now though, as far as this type of content goes, I’m just trying to have fun with Knicks Memes… and hopefully help my followers laugh and have a bit of fun, despite how painful it can be following this team.
What advice to you have for others looking to create a voice in the sports media world?
I think I gave a few bits of advice in the other questions, but in general? I’d say if you want a voice, make sure you’re saying something with that voice in a way that people will find interesting, and make sure you’re saying things that tons of other people aren’t saying (at least not before you). And keep your eyes open, especially your creative eye. Your “everyday guy” blogger like me can’t get the access needed to break the big story like a star player being traded, but you can be the one to bring it to public attention when—to give a personal example— New York Knicks guard JR Smith is “liking” and following supermodels on Instagram… during a New York Knicks game.