Misty-Jade Carlson was the last of three interviews Utah head coach Tom Farden and then-chief of staff Jennifer White had lined up for a new creative content position in 2019. The call was meant to be over FaceTime, but for some reason the video didn’t work and the interview had to be a simple phone call. Farden expected Carlson—a senior gymnast at Iowa at the time—to be flustered or nervous, which would be understandable under the circumstances.
To make matters more stressful, Carlson only learned from White that Farden would be on the call moments before the interview.
“I think I blacked out because I was so nervous,” she said.
Her nerves didn’t show. “She stayed so calm and cool and really confident,” Farden said. “It stood out to me.”
He was so impressed that when he hung up the phone he turned to White and told her, “Get the contract ready, call her back and hire her.”
Carlson and Farden met many years ago when she was in the recruiting process. Farden remembers meeting her during a visit to Utah when he was an assistant coach under Greg Marsden. Carlson ended up at Iowa, but Farden remembered her name when he and assistant coach Carly Dockendorf were pouring through rosters searching for graduating senior gymnasts with relevant majors to interview.
Farden reached out to Iowa’s Larissa Libby and asked her to find out if Carlson was interested in the position. Carlson hadn’t taken her last finals yet and hadn’t even planned on working in sports, but she said yes.
Four months later, she walked into her new office feeling surreal. She felt like she was still in college, just visiting another gymnastics team, since she was still on a campus and around a gym after just a summer off. The reality that she had a full-time job working for the University of Utah took a while to sink in.
“I didn’t think it was real for probably a year, like I actually have a job, OK! This isn’t just for fun,” Carlson said.
Initially, Carlson’s job was focused on creating recruiting materials and communicating with Utah’s large fan base. Farden recognized a need to have someone creating everything from the advertising space on the back of its digital score flashers to the ribbon boards around the arena and the graphics on the physical equipment. He also wanted to create materials to make the premium seating in Huntsman’s first 20 rows feel exclusive.
Those things aren’t just a nice-to-have at Utah but part of its financial foundation.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of support can come into our program based off of how attractive things are and what advertisement packages are there,” Farden said.
Additionally, Farden pointed out that there is an NCAA ruling that stipulates any recruitment videos sent to prospects must be produced in-house. No third-party work is allowed. So to Utah, digital content is about everything from the arena to social media and the future of the program.
When Farden sold the role to the athletic department, he called it a need. Social media isn’t going away, and having a robust and professional digital presence is key to his program’s success.
“You absolutely have to take digital content seriously, and you have to invest in it. I actually think it’s the head coach’s job,” Farden said.
Having Carlson on board for recruitment videos became especially important during the pandemic. Makenna Smith (class of 2022) and Amelie Morgan (class of 2021) were late commitments for the Utes, made possible in part through Carlson’s work.
The pandemic also greatly broadened Carlson’s job. What started out as a role narrowly focused on fan communication and recruiting work quickly ballooned into a one-woman digital production show. Carlson became Utah’s photographer and videographer, and started handling all social media as well since COVID-19 limited the number of people in the team’s bubble.
“I didn’t really feel stressed,” she said. Rather, she thought, “this is what I have to do, so I’m going to do it.”
Carlson’s background in gymnastics made the transition into full-scale digital work easier since she knows what shots will look good and when videos are most appropriate. To Farden, a gymnastics background was critical to the role because it meant there was no learning curve as far as the sport itself was concerned.
Dockendorf calls Carlson a unicorn because of the depth and breadth of the work she performs for the program. The Utes consider content a cornerstone of their work, and Carlson is a valued member of the team. In weekly staff meetings, digital content is always a topic of conversation, according to Farden.
While he checks in with her work for donors and lets her know when timely pieces need to be sent to recruits, Farden lets Carlson drive the creative process.
“Tom really lets me, as our creative person, to really do whatever I want,” Carlson said. She has the freedom to post on social media without running things by Farden. That freedom is one of her favorite parts of the job. Her least favorite? “When we lose!”
That creative freedom has paid dividends. Farden doesn’t have a number or set of figures to quantify the ways in which Carlson’s work has elevated the program, but he laughingly said, “I can tell you that I value her so much there was a significant raise after year one.”
Carlson is incredibly humble about the huge role she plays at Utah. She is a big critic of her own work, always seeing something that could be different or better. That said, she is extremely proud of her first signing day video, one that took Twitter by storm.
She also laughed off the notion that she has made connections in the community, something Farden mentioned. Still, her relationship with a local creative studio founded by former Utah Athletics designers has meant the Utes have greenscreen spaces to use. She also scouts locations for Utah’s now-famous preseason video and photo shoots, and for the first time shot the team’s 2022 video that will be out before season. Though neither Farden nor Carlson would give hints as to the location—”It’s in Utah!”—team members recently posted pictures in Moab, very appropriate for a team that is nicknamed the Red Rocks.
Carlson’s inspiration for her work comes from many directions. She follows other sports designers on Twitter, spends time on Pinterest and Tik Tok—look for increasing content on the latter from the Utes this season—and finds graphics outside of sports that she likes and adapts them to gymnastics. Both Farden and Carlson mentioned looking to sports like men’s basketball and football as a model for the ways social media can communicate with a team’s fanbase, and Carlson incorporates that framework into their vision for the Utes’ gymnastics presence.
Her goals reflect that notion, too. She works at, “putting the spotlight on [the team] as people and trying to get an audience that’s not necessarily fans of gymnastics but kind of creating a bigger fanbase for them.”
That continued growth is key because Utah’s fans are critical to everything it does.
“Not only did our fanbase build this building, they pay for all our scholarships and they paid for this expansion. Which you really gotta pinch yourself and say, ‘[Look at] what passionate gymnastics fans when they come together can do,’” Farden said, referring to the roughly $4 million expansion of the Dumke Gymnastics Center. Carlson has created a lot of the design work around the project, including mock ups, but Farden notes that the fundraising push has been a massive team effort.
The Dumke expansion includes an updated locker room, a sauna, a doubled-in-size training room, a viewing balcony for fans, an outdoor balcony overlooking the Rocky Mountains and a quiet space for gymnasts to study outside, among other things. Groundbreaking is March 1.
“We think that this will be the premier facility in the West and one of the premier facilities in the NCAA,” Farden said.
Carlson’s role and the Dumke expansion are all part of Farden’s endless pursuit forward. He’s always searching for new ways to expand and grow, spurred on by the fans in Huntsman. When Greg Marsden retired in 2015, the Utes had about 6,000 season ticket holders. The 9,300 they had before the pandemic was record-breaking and helped motivate Farden.
“None of that was by accident,” Farden said. He’s always looking at “what else can we tweak. I think some people when I [added Carlson’s position] thought it’s just another luxury for Utah, but I value this position as a need for programs.”
Despite her humbleness and refusal to consider herself a trailblazer, Carlson is just that. She was the first and remains the only full-time creative fully dedicated to gymnastics. A handful of other programs have moved toward creating a similar role—Ryan Ruckdaschel’s recent full-time hiring at Iowa as the director of operations comes to mind—but Carlson will forever be the first.
Utah has always been a visionary program that moves the sport forward, from attendance records to being the only team to qualify to NCAA nationals every season since its inception. The pattern started with Marsden, who Farden considers a mentor. Carlson’s role is a big step into the new digital frontier, and once again puts Utah at the forefront.
“We want to compete and separate ourselves from everybody. Your staff has to find creative ways to do that because there’s a lot of brilliant minds in NCAA gymnastics,” Farden said.
Farden’s goal for the Utes in 2022 is to get everyone on the same page, to max themselves out at the right moment and see where that takes them. He wouldn’t mention the national title, but if that’s where maxing out gets them, Carlson already has content ready in the back of her mind.
“You can’t be unprepared for a national championship,” she said.
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