This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on JeffGluck.com. Up next: Zane Stoddard, NASCAR’s vice president of entertainment marketing and content development.
Before we get into how you got to this point, what do you do now on a daily basis? What are some of your goals now?
We are responsible for all things entertainment-related. We develop content; we are one of the groups within NASCAR that develops content as part of our company’s broader content strategy. So we develop TV, film, digital projects. We work on strategic partnerships with studios like Disney and Pixar in Cars 3 last year.
And then lastly, we work with talent — so we program the performers for some of the pre-race concerts across our tracks as well as getting the celebrities out to our events, which is something that we work hard on and hope that we can sample our sport for these guys, particularly when we’re in the L.A. market.
So right now, we’re sitting in a suite where I understand later today, you’re going to be entertaining the celebrities right here. You have some big names coming out. How important is it for you guys to show the sport to different people who don’t normally see it?
We think it’s very important. Our product is so great, so it’s really just a matter of giving people an opportunity to be exposed to it and sample it. I have not experienced having somebody out who didn’t flip out and think this is one of the coolest experiences they’ve had, so it’s really fun to get them out. And once again, when we’re in Southern California and many of them live here, it’s a little easier than some other markets to get them out. So we think it’s a good thing for NASCAR, along with all the other great things that our company does in marketing, is to get these influential people out, have them leveraging their social media to talk about their experience at our events.
So how did you get to this point? How did you get to the point where you’re showing up at a NASCAR race and hosting celebrities and you have an IMDB page because you were the executive producer of Logan Lucky and all those sort of things. How did you get to this point?
I have no idea. (Laughs) So I grew up in California. I didn’t happen to be exposed to NASCAR, but I was certainly aware of it. I’ve been a sports fan, every sport under the sun since I was a kid, which I think many people are that work in NASCAR. I had the fortune out of college for working for an NBA team, then Nike, then the NBA league office itself for almost a decade. And so, hadn’t had the exposure to (NASCAR), but being in the sports business, I knew that it was a big, great business, so I had respect for it from arm’s length. And through relationships, the opportunity became available and I jumped at it, and it’s been awesome ever since.
When you get out of college, there’s many people that say, “Hey, I want to work in sports.” It’s not that easy, though. So how were you able to make that first opportunity, that first door open for yourself with the NBA?
I think everybody who’s in sports would agree it could happen 100 different ways. I think the tried and true is through relationships, making sure that you are interacting with people who have the ability to give you opportunities in the space.
Like many people in sports, I worked for free. I started out with the L.A. Clippers in the sponsorship group over there, working for free, hustling up and down the stairs at the L.A. Sports Arena way back when. And then just being in that position gave me the opportunity to develop those relationships deeper and then when the position became full-time, I was the guy that happened to be sitting there and already trained by them.
So developing those relationships and working for free is something that — there’s not many people who will turn down the opportunity to have someone who’ll work for free for you, so I’m a big advocate of that.
So you go from there to Nike, and then when you were at the NBA, you did a lot of the entertainment stuff — similar to what you’re doing with NASCAR. How did you end up on the entertainment side suddenly for a huge sports league like that?
I think just growing up out here and having so many friends who went into the (entertainment) business, not the least of which is my wife, who grew up in the business and has been in the business for 30 years or so. I had a certain level of exposure to how it worked. The process for me was I was really in a more traditional category of the sports business, which is sponsorship, and then went into some level of marketing and promotions while at Nike.
But being in Southern California, it was around the time when product placement and “entertainment marketing” started to become relatively important to brands. It was something the brands were looking at. I started transitioning on my own. I was working with sponsorship, but I still started to develop some relationships with bands and then some productions and started to develop or generate some opportunities with Nike to be in movies, to be in music videos and some of those things.
So when I went to the NBA, I was there all of six months in the consumer products group (in New York), which is your traditional line of marketing within sports. And with the help of some others, I proposed that we open an L.A. office. They had moved me out from Southern California. I was there six months, I literally just found an apartment and started proposing an L.A. office in the entertainment marketing division.
And just the timing was good because, as I said, brands were starting to check out entertainment to promote themselves and so David Stern signed off on it and sent me back out to L.A. I literally had just gotten my stuff off the moving van, put it back on the moving van, and moved back out to L.A. and opened a small office out there and did that for a decade.
At that time, it became full-time, the entertainment marketing opportunity, and it was new, so I could try some new things and kind of figure out through mistakes and what worked and refine it.
Certainly the media landscape is changing, as everybody knows, so you’re constantly changing things like any category of business. But when I got to NASCAR, I was able to apply some of those learnings even though the sport is a little different, the cadence of the season and ability to shoot at the track and things like that are different from sport to sport, but the application within entertainment is the same.
How do you first have successes with celebrities or movies? Do you contact 100 celebrities and if you get five to say, “Yeah, we’ll come to the race,” that’s a success? How does that even begin to work?
(Unlike) other forms of marketing, generally speaking, we don’t spend money, and so we can’t just buy a billboard and expect the billboard to be out. There is a heavy element of speculation in it, so to be speculative we do have to develop a certain number of TV projects, for example, in order to get one to hit. And we do have to invite a lot of celebrities in order to get a certain number to come, and that’s part of the drill.
We have a great group out here, it’s by far not just me. We have gotten very strategic about it so we can at least reduce some of the fat. Entertainment marketing can be a lot of spending a lot of money, there are a lot of brands out there that spend money to get a suite at a hotel to give a bunch of swag to celebrities. We don’t do that. We try to do things that are as quantifiable as possible. You have to be able to translate it to something that is quantifiable and address the strategic direction of the business, and so we try to be as sophisticated about it as possible. I think we do a fairly good job of that.
You’ve had a lot of success recently from Cars 3 and Logan Lucky. It seems like there’s a lot of projects in the pipeline from what I’ve read from Adam Stern’s tweets and things like that. How do you guys define success in your role? What is a good day for you guys?
A good day is generating opportunities that meet our strategic needs. Just by the nature of what we do, we’re leveraging other people’s platforms, so inherently, the things that NASCAR does in entertainment is gonna get in front of new audiences. So any time we can get in front of new audiences and then even more defined, some of the younger and multicultural audiences that we’re going after, is a win for us. Within that, underneath all that, we have certain goals based on metrics that we go after. So we try to be as targeted and surgical as we can with what we do.
If somebody wanted to follow your career path and is like, “Wow, this sounds really cool, I love sports, I love NASCAR. I’d love to sort of spread the gospel and get involved in TV projects or movie projects and have celebrities come.” What advice would you give them? Where would they even start?
There’s so many companies now that invest in entertainment marketing. They either have an entertainment marketing person, or they have a group that does it, particularly the major Fortune 500 brands like Coca-Cola — they have folks who are dedicated to entertainment marketing.
When I was starting, it was quite niche. Nowadays, there is a career path for entertainment marketing. The agencies have groups or divisions that represent brands in entertainment marketing and will develop programs for the brands they represent in entertainment marketing. Obviously there’s some of the sports properties that are dedicated to it, as I mentioned, most of the major consumer brands are committed to entertainment marketing, so they have groups that do that.
We will often sort of joke that we’ll get the fill in the blank, the (reality show) Housewives out to a race. And understandably, you might have some people in the halls (of NASCAR) grumble, “Why are we doing stuff with the Housewives?” And I always say, “We don’t really care about the Housewives, we’re going after their audience.” Because it’s Bravo and it’s millennials and it’s a relatively progressive audience.