Check out the feature article from Andy Staples at The Athletic, detailing how Cal Football uses their virtual tour from Skyway Interactive!

(VIRTUAL) BERKELEY, Calif. — Even though we’re 2,700 miles apart, Benji Palu and I are looking out over San Francisco Bay from high above Cal’s Memorial Stadium on a glorious sunny day. Palu is guiding me through some of my recreational options if I was a Cal football player with some time to kill. After explaining the wonders of Strawberry Canyon, Palu moves his cursor into the bay and clicks on Alcatraz.

“Al Capone was a lot smaller,” says Palu, the former Bears offensive lineman who now serves as Cal’s director of on-campus recruiting. “I can’t fit in those cells. Tried it. Didn’t work.”

This line clearly has been workshopped. Palu has guided more than 100 of these “virtual visits” since the pandemic shut down in-person recruiting 13 months ago. It’s the only way Cal coaches can show off their football facilities as well as one of the nation’s most breathtaking campus views. At the moment, it’s the only way any college coach can show facilities, classrooms or campus amenities to a recruit. The NCAA shut down on-campus recruiting on March 12, 2020, and it will be at least June before anyone hosts another unofficial or official visitor. That has forced programs to find ways to allow recruits to explore their facilities without actually being physically present. And that has made a real estate photographer in the Pacific Northwest a very busy man.

Palu spends 45 minutes to an hour on each virtual visit to guide recruits and their families in and around Cal’s football facilities in Memorial Stadium. He has them meet him at the Bear statue outside the stadium just as he would if they were there in person. The difference is Palu isn’t pouring sweat; he’s in the air-conditioned comfort of his office sharing his screen in a Zoom meeting. He clicks an arrow, and suddenly we’re looking at a panoramic view of the smoked glass windows of the weight room from the Gate 3 entrance to Cal’s football facility. Why here? Because, Palu points out, this is where all the free moped parking is. So that’s where players choose to enter. Palu moves his cursor, and we turn to face the facility’s front door. He clicks, and we’re inside the door. To our right is the hallway that leads to the coaches’ offices. To our left is the office of Cal football’s director of academic support and the office of Ron Coccimiglio, who runs the Life After Ball program that helps players secure internships and make connections in professions related to their majors. “For football, all your tutors are Ph.D. candidates,” Palu says. “Even though I’m a Cal alum, you don’t want to be tutored by me.” If this doesn’t sound exciting to you, then you aren’t the parent of a football recruit. This is the part where a lot of moms and dads would be breaking into the Zoom meeting, asking if their son can commit now.

Palu guides us through the weight room, the palatial tight end meeting room funded by alum Tony Gonzalez and the mood-lit locker room paid for by future (and present) “Jeopardy!” host and current Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Palu shows off The Bear Cut, the barbershop setup that no self-respecting football program can do without these days. He also takes us to the Bears’ nap pods, where players can catch some quality sleep between workouts and classes — “Everybody gets a pillow and a blanket with their number stitched on it,” Palu says. This is as directed at the recruit as much as the Ph.D. thing was directed at the recruits’ parents. And Palu isn’t talking over a few boring images. In each of these rooms, Palu can spin his cursor and make it feel as if we’re turning our heads in the room.

For this, Cal has Jake Donahue to thank.

Donahue is the aforementioned real estate photographer — who might not be a real estate photographer much longer. He lives in Vancouver, Wash., just across the border from Portland, and he originally dreamed of working in sports journalism. “Then newspapers died,” Donahue laments. Donahue went to Oregon State in the early 2000s hoping to study and crack the field as a writer, editor or page designer. After what he deems “a disagreement about what my grades were supposed to be,” Donahue landed at North Idaho College, a two-year school (at which he spent more than two years) in Coeur d’Alene. There, Donahue did every job for the student newspaper. He wrote, edited stories, took photos and designed pages. But when he left college, there were few jobs to be had. He spent a summer designing pages at the Coeur d’Alene Press, but afterward, Donahue put those skills to use shooting photos and designing pages to show homes to potential buyers.

That paid the bills, but Donahue still dreamed of working in sports. So he asked around, looking for someone with a stadium who would let him take a panoramic photo that he could turn into a virtual tour that structurally wouldn’t be all that different from the 360-degree tour he’d create for that adorable four-bedroom, three-bath Craftsman that was about to sell for $25,000 more than its Zestimate. University of Washington officials said yes, so on a sweltering August day in 2016, Donahue stood on the field at Husky Stadium with a 360-degree camera and a dream. He was there for four hours. It should have taken only two. “The first two hours I did it wrong,” he said. “It was zoomed out too far. It was horrible.” But once Donahue corrected the camera’s settings, he got a beautiful 360 shot of the stadium that he turned into a virtual tour. With his proof of concept in hand, he created Skyway Interactive and began trying to sell pro sports teams and colleges on virtual tours.

At first, the pro business was much better than the college business. Pro teams want to give fans a chance to look at their facilities, and they also want to give prospective ticket buyers a chance to see what view they’d like from their seats. This led to projects from spring training stadiums to minor-league parks to Major League Baseball and NFL stadiums. For example, the Arizona Cardinals brought Donahue down to create virtual tours of State Farm Stadium. Want to know how your view of a Cardinals game would look if you had a luxury suite? You can thank the virtual tour Donahue created. Donahue also has created virtual back-of-the-house tours that aren’t for public consumption. Imagine the Rolling Stones decide to tour again. Arena or stadium management could send a link to the band’s team so it can plan the load-in and load-out of equipment, assign dressing rooms and make any green M&M-related requests.

But for the first few years, colleges didn’t seem as interested. “Before the pandemic, I was lucky to get a sniff from a DII school,” Donahue said. The message from the largest schools was the same: “It’s a want,” he remembers hearing. “It’s not necessarily a need.” Then the pandemic made virtual tours an absolute necessity. “Now I’ve done half the SEC and half the Pac-12,” Donahue says. “It has spread like wildfire.”

But, like anything else in college sports, it took a little dealing with the NCAA. The Ole Miss women’s basketball program had hired Donahue to create a virtual tour, but his real estate business at home was also booming because with no in-person open houses, there was huge demand for virtual home tours. So he sent a 360-degree camera to Oxford, and Ole Miss staffers took the shots and uploaded them so Donahue could build the tour. But before Donahue could create the tour, he got a call asking if he could pause. Ole Miss compliance wasn’t sure if the tour would be allowed by the NCAA, which had a rule in place that forbade hiring outside audio and video companies to create recruiting packages. (Presumably to keep Alabama or Ohio State from hiring Michael Bay to make a recruiting video.) So Donahue made a lot of calls and sent a lot of e-mails, and ultimately he was able to convince school compliance departments that hiring him didn’t break any rule. He wasn’t providing any audio or video services. He was taking still images and building them in a way that simulated a 3D effect. That didn’t violate the rule.

That doesn’t mean schools can’t add video elements themselves. Michigan took a school-produced video of the football team’s banner-slapping entrance narrated by alum James Earl Jones and attached it to the virtual stadium tour Donahue created. Go ahead and click. Your hair will stand on end. Meanwhile, Kentucky football has embedded more practical videos. If you’re virtually touring the Wildcats’ football facilities, you can look around the dining hall and then click on a video featuring team dietician Jalyn Mason that describes the nutrition program for the football team.

Once a few schools were comfortable they were working within the rules, demand for Donahue’s services exploded. He suddenly found himself working with schools across the country. He wasn’t sure at first how much schools would want. He remembers asking a Kentucky official if the Wildcats really needed a virtual tour of the men’s basketball locker room and players’ lounge. “Is anyone going to look at this?” he asked. “They’re going to play for (John) Calipari. They don’t care if you’re playing in a shack, right?” The answer?  “Everyone still wants to see it.” (If you take the virtual tour, you’ll wish you were a 6-8 wing with some eligibility remaining.)

And as long as the NCAA dead period remains in effect, everyone needs it. New South Carolina coach Shane Beamer started an interview last month with his virtual official visit background still live on Zoom. The Gamecocks don’t use Donahue’s company, but they offer a similar experience to Cal. Fortunately for Beamer, who had to start taking recruits through virtual visits as soon as he was hired in December, he worked at South Carolina as an assistant from 2007-10. So he knew of what he spoke. “You miss being able to get a guy on campus and show them how beautiful the campus is at South Carolina,” Beamer said. “You miss being able to sit down with guys in your office and talk, so that part has been tough. But we’ve gotten used to it, and like any other program and college football right now, you’re trying to find ways to be creative and separate yourself from your competitors when it comes to these, because this is certainly the name of the game right now.”

At Cal, it took quite a bit of trial and error before the Bears landed on the visit Palu offers recruits now. Shortly after the shutdown, Palu and Cal staffers tried just sending videos to recruits. Those got a tepid response. As they searched for a way to present the facilities better, director of video and technology Matt Fox came across Donahue’s company. Fox actually took all the shots for the virtual tour, including the beautiful drone shot from above Memorial Stadium looking across Berkeley — you can also turn left and see Oakland — and out to the bay that serves as the tour’s de facto home page. Donahue assembled the photos into a coherent package, and the Bears were ready to offer virtual tours in July 2020. At first, Palu would just send the link, but when it became clear to Cal head coach Justin Wilcox in conversations with recruits that the high schoolers hadn’t seen everything Wilcox hoped they would, Palu began guiding the tours himself. That way, he can be sure the parents know about the academic credentials of the tutors and the recruits themselves know that they can get grab-and-go meals from the fueling station or use a declining-balance card to grab a late-night meal after the training table closes. Now, when Wilcox mentions these things during calls with recruits, they aren’t hearing about them for the first time.

“I tell Coach Wilcox I’m the Michael Jordan of virtuals,” Palu says.

When the dead period ends — everyone in college football hopes that will happen in June — Palu doesn’t plan on hanging up his Zoom login. He’ll be thrilled to host recruits in person to show them what Cal has to offer, but he also believes the Bears can broaden their recruiting reach by continuing the virtual visits. It’s difficult to convince a player from another region to take an unofficial visit — where the school does not pay the recruit’s travel costs — but perhaps a positive experience from a virtual tour might entice a player to come to one of Cal’s camps. Or perhaps the virtual visit could serve as the unofficial visit and the player decides to come to Cal on an official visit — where the school is allowed to pay for the player’s travel. Either way, Palu hopes he now has one more tool to get elite recruits to seriously consider Cal.

He’s not alone, either. Schools that don’t get most of their players from within a few hundred miles will need to offer a great virtual visit even after the dead period ends because that will create a better chance of an in-person visit that in turn increases the chances of a commitment.

Donahue knows that, too. So if you know anyone in the Portland metro area who wants to take photos for virtual house tours, he probably could use your help. Because his virtual sports tour business is about to be booked solid.