How a high school football contest is creating buzz in communities across Illinois


By David ArkinLMA Contributor

A newspaper group in Illinois has found an interesting way to engage audience interested in high school football by recognizing the best athletes in an approach that is encouraging reader participation.

Shaw Media, a group of newspapers in Illinois and Iowa, created Friday Night Drive, a digital destination that features high school content. As part of the Friday Night Drive brand, they have developed a contest that had readers flocking to Shaw’s websites in hopes that their favorite player is recognized.

Each Sunday during the regular football season and into the playoffs, Shaw opens up voting for their Team of the Week, and readers get to decide who makes the team. The top voter gets recognized with an MVP belt, which is sponsored.

Their efforts won them Best Contest and/or Promotion in the Digital Innovation Awards from the Local Media Association.

We caught up with Shaw’s Illinois Editor John Sahly to learn more about their efforts.

Give us the highlights on Friday Night Drive. How does it work?

At Shaw Media, we’ve expanded our footprint in northern Illinois in a significant way over the past decade. High school football is a ubiquitous topic and we frequently have crossover matchups in our various markets. With the hiring of Steve Soucie, a noted expert and insider for high school football in the state, it made sense to have one great place for all of our high school football content.

Doing that allowed us to significantly expand our offerings and what we could do on a scaled-up level. Soucie projects the playoffs in all eight of Illinois classes, we do a Team of the Week for the state, power rankings, newsletter, etc.

The crown jewel of our Team of the Week project is the MVP belt. All of our markets contribute to a massive spreadsheet by the end of games on Saturday (most games are on Fridays in Illinois, but we do have a slate of Saturday games too) to nominate players at each position for our Team of the Week. I narrow that list of about 100 players down to about 60 and create a voting ballot in Second Street. We define parameters for the week for each position to determine how many of the top vote-getters will be named to the Team of the Week (11 players on offense, 11 players on defense), and the player with the most overall votes is named the Team of the Week MVP.

Voting runs from Sunday morning through Monday evening. We then go into Second Street, check out the results, and contact the MVP’s coach either that night or the next morning. The coaches have been great about keeping it a secret until the local market reporter/editor shows up either before or after Tuesday’s practice with our Team of the Week MVP belt. That person also gets an article in the paper.

How did you all come up with the idea?

I’m a Cubs fan, and one of the things I noticed while watching the Cubs celebrate winning the 2016 World Series was Kris Bryant walking around with a WWE title belt. I did a little research and found it’s a thing WWE does with major professional sports championships. They just sent a belt or five to a team that wins a title, and it’s (almost) free marketing for them.

We figured if we gave away a championship belt, there’s no way that kid doesn’t get stopped in the hall 50 times that week, or better yet puts it on Instagram or TikTok, and all of a sudden there is a conversation about Friday Night Drive and what it is.

Were the engagement metrics good?

Incredible. We had more than 25,000 newsletter signups in 12 weeks as a result of voting in the contest. You couldn’t go on Twitter from Sunday morning-Monday evening without seeing athletic directors, players, coaches, students, parents and fans encouraging their local communities to vote for someone who was nominated.

Was it relatively easy to find a sponsor for it?

We did get a sponsor for it. This was a brand new thing with no history, which always makes for a tough sell, but we did manage to sell it before the season started.

Any additional plans with the product?

Well, hopefully there is football in the next year that can be played safely. Like anything else, we’re all just waiting for more information and a safe return.

Any advice for someone who is thinking about trying something like this?

Don’t be afraid to think big. It’s a lot of work but it created this very wide entrance door to not just people checking out our product, but subscribing to it.

To gain more industry insights like this, you can still register for the Local Media Association’s virtual Digital Summit Week, Aug. 10-14.