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The story of Wahoops: How a U.Va. alumnus created the most popular Virginia sports fan account on social media

Gray Ellington and Wahoops have created a massive community of over 26,000 followers in just four years

<p>Ellington is a lifelong Virginia sports fan and has attended numerous games like the men's basketball team's meeting with Marshall in 2018.</p>

Ellington is a lifelong Virginia sports fan and has attended numerous games like the men's basketball team's meeting with Marshall in 2018.

Historically one of the most successful Division I programs in the country, Virginia Athletics undoubtedly has a large following of fans. As Virginia’s popularity continues to grow and social media becomes increasingly common, countless social media fan pages about Virginia sports have popped up. Of these, Wahoops — which has amassed over 26,000 followers on Instagram alone — stands at the top.   

Wahoops is currently the largest fan account — by number of followers — dedicated to Virginia sports across social media. Since Class of 2016 alumnus Gray Ellington started the account just four years ago, Wahoops has built a passionate and rapidly growing community in addition to a reputation as a valuable source of multimedia content for Virginia fans.

The start of Wahoops

Ellington’s life has always revolved around sports and he enjoys a number of them with his favorites being soccer, basketball and football. Despite growing up in Charleston, S.C., Ellington is a lifelong Virginia fan. His entire family — including his father and older brother, who are University alumni — loves the Cavaliers and their passion rubbed off on him. Since he lived hundreds of miles away from Charlottesville, Ellington usually resorted to keeping track of Virginia games through ESPN, play-by-play reporting and the car radio, though he was able to attend a handful of games in person as well. 

While he got a taste of the Virginia fan experience in his childhood, Ellington’s passion for the Cavaliers grew when he enrolled at the University. As a first-year resident of Dunglison, Ellington lived just steps away from Scott Stadium.

“Once I became a student, it was awesome being so close to games,” Ellington said. “Going from a seven-hour drive to a few minutes walk was a dream for me.”

After four years filled with plenty of memories about the Cavaliers, Ellington graduated in August 2016. Once he returned from a two-month vacation in Costa Rica, Ellington took the all-important step. In November 2016, Ellington — inspired by an Instagram account for another team and the desire to create something tangible with his fandom — officially launched the Wahoops account.

Shortly after the account was started, Wahoops was already gaining traction in the community. In less than two weeks, the account gained 500 to 1,000 followers. Wahoops’ follower count “slowly snowballed” from there, Ellington said, as more Virginia sports fans found the account in the coming months and years. Ellington didn’t have to put a significant amount of time and effort into Wahoops at the start as the account grew organically.

Interestingly, Wahoops’ early content was very “reactionary” to men’s basketball and football games, Ellington said. The account mainly featured critiques, analyses and other forms of subjective content. According to Ellington, some of the biggest obstacles at the beginning of his Wahoops journey were actually content-related. 

“Back then, figuring out what to do and figuring out how to make things better, that was really the struggle,” Ellington said. “Because we were just posting pictures and sometimes videos, so how can I be more creative with things?”

As he continued posting engaging content and Wahoops gained thousands of followers, it was clear Ellington was on to something. However, even after his account’s early success, Ellington didn’t know how large Wahoops would become or that it would grow to its current size.

“Honestly, about a week or two into it, I had like 1,000 followers, I thought maybe it could get to 5,000 or 10,000 easily,” Ellington said. “I didn't know that it could ever get to [over 25,000 followers]. I didn't know for sure if it would ever do well, but I knew that there weren't many people that were as passionate about it as me. Once I started actually putting a lot of time into it, that's when the growth really took care of itself.”

Rapid growth and a rise to prominence

Wahoops’ first two years laid the foundation but 2019 was the landmark year for Ellington and his social media page. The first significant moment of the year was in January when Ellington switched careers and moved from Chicago to Richmond. Excited about how far the account had come in a few short years, Ellington was ready to make Wahoops his full-time job.

Now, fully committed to Wahoops, Ellington could dedicate more time to improving the quality of his content, posting more frequently and engaging with the community. Ellington’s bold decision to focus all his attention on Wahoops could not have come at a better time.

Just a few months later, Virginia men’s basketball reached its first Final Four in over three decades and won a historic national championship. Enthusiasm and interest in Virginia sports and, by association, Wahoops was at an all time high.

In March 2019, almost 2.5 years after Wahoops’ launch, Ellington’s account was sitting at about 8,000 followers, according to Social Blade — a website that tracks social media analytics. By May 2019, the account was approaching 13,000 followers. The impact of Virginia’s first national title in men’s basketball on Wahoops’ growth was clear.

“It was incredible and validating to hit the 10k [follower] milestone the morning after the national championship,” Ellington said. “But that was when the real work began.”

Wahoops surpassed 20,000 followers before the end of 2019. In just the last 10 months of the year, Wahoops gained over 12,000 followers — about 50 percent more than the number of followers the account gained in the first 28 months. 

“The floodgates were open after the national championship,” Ellington said. “The monkey is off the back. No reason to hold back anymore. Everyone was super excited. Everyone was engaging with the content.”

Wahoops in 2020 and beyond

To say that Wahoops has come a long way over the last four years would be an understatement. At the time of publication, Wahoops has over 26,600 followers. Notably, Wahoops’ social media footprint isn’t the only thing about the account that has changed. Everything from the content to the team behind the scenes looks a lot different from years prior.

Nowadays, Wahoops’ posts are less critical and more informative and uplifting. The majority of the account’s posts cover box scores, highlights and breaking news from the world of Virginia sports — all things that appeal to Virginia fans.

“We've transitioned to [being] more of a support system,” Ellington said. “We're still being constructively critical when necessary, but I think we're a lot different from any Twitter accounts, podcasts, or blogs.”

Additionally, Wahoops has expanded beyond men’s basketball and football to all 27 Virginia varsity teams. Given Virginia’s success across numerous sports, Ellington understood the need to draw more attention to teams that may not always get the most public recognition.

“I just think U.Va. has so many incredible athletes, like world class athletes, that don't get enough visibility,” Ellington said. “Not enough people talk about them … I think they deserve some of the spotlight … And not just sports like soccer, lacrosse and baseball where we've won national championships in the last few years. I think just giving visibility to the whole athletics department makes sense.”

Along with the shift in the style of the content, the frequency of Wahoops’ content also changed. Before the 2019 Final Four, Ellington said that he posted “minimal content” on the account — less than 200 posts in approximately two years. Since then, Wahoops has posted over 1,000 times. According to Ellington, Wahoops now shares about 75 pieces of content on Instagram each week, including 20 posts and around 55 stories.

As Wahoops expanded its scale and scope, Ellington realized that the account couldn’t be a one-man show anymore. He described running the account as “a round-the-clock ordeal” for which he has to be “on alert from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days.”

Accordingly, he decided to add interns to the team that could help him in various ways. Ellington recruited his first two interns a couple of years ago in Class of 2020 alumna Caroline Price and high school junior Jaden Hawkins. While Price left the team when she graduated, Hawkins remains an instrumental part of Wahoops today, often designing professional-quality graphics for the account.

This fall, as Wahoops continues to grow quickly, Ellington brought on more recruits, bringing the total number of interns to 23 — the majority of which are current University students. The interns work across multiple areas including video editing, on-camera production, content and graphic design. 

“The idea behind the intern team is to give students an opportunity through this platform,” Ellington said. “It's quite a lot of work just for one person, so I figured why not give some of these students some experience and to find some talented students who have technical skills, like graphic design and video editing, or want to be on camera.”

Within the new crop of interns, Ellington has entrusted several with leadership roles. At the helm is Avery Mullaney, fifth-year Commerce student and Wahoops Team Lead. Mullaney will be responsible for overseeing and organizing the entire team.

“I work with Gray to help optimize and streamline communication among the team members,” Mullaney said. “There's a ton of unique talent on the team, I'm just helping to get everyone involved and producing content in one way or another.” 

In addition to Ellington and Mullaney, three others have access to the Instagram account, including Bridgett Bucci, third-year College student and Wahoops Co-Head of Content and Analytics. 

Bucci keeps track of player and team statistics — mainly for football and men’s basketball — with the goal of sharing “unique and surprising stats that engage the U.Va. fan base in addition to a quick run-down of U.Va.’s offensive and defensive stats.”

“Each week you never know what player might step it up and have a huge game for the [Hoos], and being one of the first people to document that is a cool feeling,” Bucci said. “I love when the U.Va. players share the stories I post or appreciate the stats that I find for them … The fact that I can find stats that the fan base is interested in keeps me wanting to find more.”

Beyond finding interesting statistics, Bucci also monitors the Instagram account’s weekly analytics to track Wahoops’ activity and engagement. According to Social Blade, Wahoops averaged 2,240 likes and 63 comments on the account’s last 20 posts — an engagement rate of 8.64 percent.

Other crucial interns on the Wahoops team include graphic designers and researchers. The graphic design team produces visually stunning graphics on a daily basis, while Ellington relies on the research team routinely to collect information and data that might be necessary for content. 

“[The research interns] help me basically just drum up anything on a daily basis that normally I would go do research for,” Ellington said. “They're on it pretty much right away. They're available at the drop of a hat, so they help me a lot.”

While Ellington admitted that managing such a large team can be difficult, he’s confident his interns can help relieve some of the stress of running the account and take Wahoops to the next level, all while providing them with valuable real-world experience.

Ultimately, Ellington hopes the account will be entirely student-run in the future. However, in the short-term, Ellington’s goal is to both perfect Wahoops’ content and not miss any Virginia sports news over the next several months, so that he can guarantee on-time, high-quality posts.

“It's no small task to give reputable, up-to-date content 7 days a week, but it's exactly what makes the account so successful,” Mullaney said. “Gray has done an amazing job building the brand thus far, and I'm excited to where the next few months take us. That being said, we have some cool segment ideas in the works, so I'm really looking forward to seeing those come to fruition.”

An ecstatic reaction from the community

Wahoops caters to every type of Virginia supporter — high school students, current University students, University alumni, Virginia student-athletes, Charlottesville natives and more. It’s safe to say that Virginia fans have welcomed Wahoops with open arms. 

“I follow Wahoops to keep up to date with U.Va. sports and U.Va. alumni in professional leagues,” second-year Engineering student Cooper Yurish said. “I enjoy the scope of sports Wahoops follows. I wouldn’t normally follow all of U.Va. athletics as closely, but with Wahoops, I know whenever anything important happens in any sport.”

Wesley Cheuk, University of Mary Washington sophomore and Charlottesville native, echoed Yurish’s sentiments, saying that “Wahoops is the only U.Va. fan account I follow because it gives me all the U.Va. athletics information I need on one account.”

Members of the Virginia sports community with large social media followings have also noticed Wahoops’ success. These include local Virginia sports contributors Kevin Cook — @HoozGotNext on Twitter — and Brandon Lloyd, both of which have thousands of followers.

“I got to know Gray while working for Locker Room Access,” Cook said. “He's extremely passionate about Virginia sports. Speaking from experience this sort of thing can become a daily grind at times. His tireless work, the bulk of content he pours out, speaks to that passion.”

Cook calls Ellington “the OG of Wahoo IG” and has even received advice from the Wahoops founder about his own Instagram account. Lloyd further highlighted Wahoops’ diversity of content and talented staff.

“Whether you’re someone looking for the newest addition to the jersey wardrobe or wondering who that next big recruit will be in Charlottesville, Gray and Wahoops will give you everything you need to stay up to date on the Hoos,” Lloyd said. “My personal interactions with Gray have been fun too as we chat about games, player progression, score predictions and everything in between. He’s awesome at what he does and I can’t wait to see what else Wahoops will continue to bring.”

Clearly, Wahoops — which celebrated its four-year anniversary Nov. 27 — has left a mark on the Virginia sports world. While Ellington is proud of Wahoops’ success, he’s excited to continue growing the account and serving the community in bigger and better ways in the future.

“One of the best parts about the last four years is the amount of people I’ve met and gotten to know through Wahoops,” Ellington said. “Thanks again to everyone who follows along and supports, it’s been an honor to have this platform and your trust. Hoos for Life.”