For moving sports onto fans’ phones (and showing that TikToks aren’t just for dance moves)
Jenna McNaney joined TikTok as the sports and gaming content partnerships lead in February 2020—just two weeks before the company’s Los Angeles office went remote due to COVID.
“It was a wild time to start,” she says. “We had our strategy already built out and locked in for 2020, and then, obviously, everything pivoted with the lack of live sports. It was a challenging time, but it was honestly really fun and lots of growth happened.”
McNaney came on board to help sports and gaming brands establish and build a presence on the ridiculously addictive video-sharing social media platform. And despite pandemic hurdles, she managed to nearly double the number of those brands on the platform (to reach more than 450) and helped grow others exponentially.
It certainly helps that McNaney knows sports. She grew up playing soccer and volleyball—and believes those early exercises in camaraderie and leadership were foundational.
“The experience you get as a child playing sports is just super invaluable in terms of discipline and character building,” she says. “I feel like it taught me so much.”
As an adult, McNaney found ways to weave her love of athletics into her career, first as a media strategist at the U.S. National Football League (NFL) and now at TikTok.
Here are five projects that have majorly scored:
NFL Draft 2020 and 2021
One of the first pandemic pivots McNaney had to architect was coverage of the NFL draft, the mega-popular, high-drama event where pro teams pick young players they hope will be their next superstars. Due to social distancing measures, the in-person event in April 2020 was moved online, and at the time, TikTok didn’t have the livestream capabilities to stream the draft—or so McNaney thought.
Just days before the draft was scheduled to stream on other sites like Twitch and Twitter, McNaney learned the TikTok dev team had put the finishing touches on the live product, which would allow the NFL to stream its event. So McNaney had to draw up a desperation play: With two days until the event, her team readied a pitch for the NFL to be the first sports livestream on TikTok.
“The good thing about TikTok is that there’s not a lot of red tape to go through,” she says. With approval from her supervisor and the U.S. general manager, McNaney met with the league’s leaders, and they agreed to make TikTok one of its official streaming partners.
For the big event, the TikTok team also lined up NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to create an exclusive duet clip, which received 1.3 million video views, on top of the 585,000 livestream views for the Draft-A-Thon LIVE.
In 2021, McNaney built off the success of the first draft livestream by launching #DraftPicks on TikTok, which encouraged users to rank their faves in a variety of categories. “This is super-important for sports, because you want to create a wide array of entry points for all these fans,” says McNaney. “TikTok is such a great way to connect various new communities of fans.”
Challenge the Game
Amplifying female athletes’ voices on the platform is a focus for McNaney, so she’s always on the lookout for smart ways to join the cultural conversation. For Women’s History Month in 2021, she worked with an outside agency and TikTok’s public figures team to scout talent for a lively roundtable discussion on women in sports. And the results speak for themselves: TikTok secured Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, rhythmic gymnast Elena Shinohara and host Cari Champion for the event, which attracted more than 1 million unique visitors. “It was a huge win for us,” says McNaney. “It was one of our top livestreams that we’ve ever done for sports.”
Runway Labyrinth Finale
McNaney worked with TikTok’s fashion team for a slam dunk of a show highlighting players from the Women’s National Basketball Association. Given that this was yet another virtual event, logistics were the main challenge: namely ensuring that each player received her outfit in a timely manner and in the right size—and that she actually liked it.
Despite the team’s best-laid plans, one player wasn’t keen on the outfit she was supposed to wear, so the team scrambled to make it right. With just days before the runway show, it secured a new outfit from the same designer. And thanks to one project manager’s strong working relationship with the designer, she was able to let them know about the change without bruising any egos or damaging any relationships.
Q&A: Jenna McNaney on the power of yoga, navigating resistance and Brené Brown
What project most influenced you personally?
The past few years, I’ve been on a path of self-development. As part of that, I decided to enroll in a 200-hour yoga teacher training program, as well as a 65-hour yoga sculpt program, which was designed to give students the tools and techniques to live their lives in a more meaningful and mindful way. I firmly believe developing this type of emotional intelligence is key to personal growth and upleveling our lives, including our careers.
Developing self-awareness—the ability to identify emotions, handle conflict, give feedback and manage stress—is critical. It’s brought me closer to my work and allowed me to show up better for myself, as a leader and as a colleague. The way we show up for ourselves and others is just as important as the projects that land in our portfolio.
What’s the must-have skill set to succeed in The Project Economy?
Emotional intelligence and the ability to walk the path of most resistance. I deeply believe that the ability to develop ourselves emotionally to better lean into challenges and see the greater picture is the key to succeed in this respect. At a minimum, leaders and project managers must be able to label and identify emotions, manage relationships and show up in their decision-making. Courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. If we as individuals cannot be vulnerable and take risks to set a precedent for the generations after us, then we’re not fulfilling our purpose nor can we move projects forward in the most efficient manner.
How are young people changing the world of projects now?
Young people are shifting the paradigm when it comes to stepping into their authentic selves in the workplace. They’re taking more risks, creating real change, thinking big picture and integrating a human-first approach to their work.
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
Burnout is a very real challenge facing young project leaders. It’s critical that we learn how to take breaks and take care of ourselves. Check in with yourself, meditate, take a walk, take space and learn how to manage your stress. Lastly, don’t listen to the roommate inside your head—imposter syndrome is very real but almost always wrong.
What famous person would you want on your project team?
Brené Brown. If you couldn’t tell, I love vulnerability and I think her work is groundbreaking and changing the world.
X Games Aspen 2021
In early 2021, TikTok partnered with ESPN and X Games to livestream five of their sporting events, and once again, the team had to rely on its uber agility. Throughout the two days, the X Games and TikTok teams were in close communication to identify major moments from the live broadcast and turn them into TikToks, which would then be integrated back into the broadcast.
“When you’re incorporating broadcasts and off-platform elements, it really brings the project to another level,” says McNaney. That collaboration paid off: The X Games broke the then record for sports livestreams on TikTok with 1.7 million unique viewers, while quadrupling the X Games’ follower count.
TikTok Tailgate Super Bowl LV
McNaney’s largest project to date was the TikTok Tailgate Super Bowl LV event in February 2021. Hosted by sports reporter MJ Acosta-Ruiz and comedian Steve Harvey, the event spanned two hours: the first highlighting TikTok creator, athlete and celebrity content, with the second featuring a concert starring Miley Cyrus.
“It was an emotional event, because it was the first live concert back in the U.S. since COVID,” says McNaney. “Miley performed for a couple thousand vaccinated healthcare workers, all socially distanced, so that was really exciting.”
The pregame show led to a record-breaking 1.8 million unique viewers (sorry, X Games Aspen), and the NFL gained over 340,000 channel followers the week of the Super Bowl. “By showcasing the NFL’s fun and playful personality and leaning into community trends and behind-the-scenes moments, the NFL has proven to be a trailblazer media publisher on TikTok,” says McNaney. “We’re paving the way for a new generation of football fans.”