Ep. 55: The Changing Times of Athlete Marketing with Aaron Zack
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Aaron Zack, Co-Founder at Revolving Mind Media, joins Rob Cressy to talk about the changing times of athlete marketing. How are athletes engaging fans during the pandemic? Why aren’t more brands using live streaming? What opportunity does LinkedIn present for athletes? How can you learn more about emerging technology?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy, and joining me today is Aaron Zack, Co-Founder at Revolving Mind Media. Erin, great to have you on the show.
Aaron Zack: (00:29)
Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Rob Cressy: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?
Aaron Zack: (00:35)
A little background on myself is I was the former youngest NFL sports agent in the business. That's been a childhood goal of mine. Four years ago, we launched Revolving Mind Media to focus on building athlete brands and businesses as a whole. So, right now 50% of our business are athletes in the NFL and NBA and the other 50% are businesses and brands. So, we do a lot of unique cross-marketing. We have a full in-house marketing team. And like I said I kind of oversee more of the sports side of the industry.
Rob Cressy: (01:08)
So, let's start on the athlete side of things and the times are certainly changing in the last year. I don't think any of us could have foreseen what would go on, but what it's really forcing is a new mindset shift for how athletes engage fans and brands. Since we can't do as much in person now, a lot more is happening digitally. Can you give some insight on that?
Aaron Zack: (1:32)
Yeah. I have a handful of athletes that have built out their own personal LinkedIn pages to build out their business portfolio. The average playing career is only three and a half years in the NFL. So, creating that sense of urgency and knowing that people may be attached to the star on Cowboys helmets right now while they're playing football. They've understood the importance of that. In addition, leveraging their online social platforms. It's always been there, but now more than ever. Retail has taken a hit. People are on their phones more and more these days. So, utilizing these platforms Instagram, Facebook, a little bit of Twitter to help businesses brands. They've seen even more deal flow come through right now during these coronavirus sides because businesses are needing to hit hundreds of thousands of eyes at different avenues. So, that's a couple of areas where I've seen a lot of growth is through LinkedIn and just society as a whole.
Rob Cressy: (02:34)
So, you are the first person to ever mention linked in and athletes to me on any podcasts that I've ever done. And it's interesting because I am oftentimes on the receiving end of LinkedIn requests from current and former professional athletes. And on the former, the ones who have retired, I certainly get it. Post-Career a lot of them go into startups or tech or they're building philanthropy or something like that, but I've also run into some that are currently athletes and I'm someone that I'm a very network and relationship-oriented. So, I'm thinking about one instance with a current NFL running back who reached out to me and I'm sitting there. I'm like, all right, well, how do you respond back to a current NFL player connecting with you on LinkedIn? And what I just really did was I was like, Hey man, I know you're in the NFL, but how can I provide value for you? Because I don't think I even understood how they're leveraging the platform. So, can you give a little insight into that because LinkedIn is so robust? I am so heavily involved in it. But I don't think I or a lot of others out there have connected how athletes may be able to use that to build their own brands or engage fans and brands.
Aaron Zack: (03:54)
Yeah. One of the things that I've kind of coached some of my clients on is connecting with CMOs of large businesses. I mean we have calls with Gatorade, Sony, some really really large businesses all through the guy behind me sending direct messages as well as other Cowboys players reaching out through their own platforms to start up conversations. I'm involved in those conversations and that's where I kind of put together that roadmap on what a partnership looks like. But I coach them to engage with businesses that intrigued them. Businesses you want to learn about and this could be for investment purposes, so smaller businesses. This could be for endorsement partnerships, and it's also, they're connecting with a lot of charitable organizations where they want to give back a little bit. So, those are kind of the three roles that utilize LinkedIn for and I don't know everyone nor does my clients. So, we're all about connecting each other with the right individuals that can utilize their platforms.
Rob Cressy: (04:57)
So, take me into the mindset a little bit more about the connection. So, that all makes sense but if I'm on the receiving end and I see a professional athlete, just because I know your name doesn't necessarily mean that automatically we're going to do business or communicate. So, for example, engagement is a big part of social media, whether it's on LinkedIn or whether it's on any other platform. So, just because you create an account, doesn't mean that all of a sudden it's working, that they need to be able to create content, or they need to have outbound reach where you can play the game like everybody else is playing. And while they may have some sort of advantage, how are you really cultivating a strategy within it so that it's not just you're on the platform and you're reaching out, but there's some sort of activity level from an engagement standpoint?
Aaron Zack: (05:44)
Yeah. Well, it starts off with, my clients are involved in all conference calls. So, even though they're reaching out, they're not just passing it off to me. So, number one, the intrigue is typically there by the businesses by yourself, etc. for setting up calls from there. It's really uncovering what they need. They're all looking for sales, right? That's number one. They're looking to turn revenue in some manner. So, understanding what that is and how that can be executed, that's number one. So, if we can leverage their platforms, whether it's creating video content, whether it's a commission component where they get a percentage of sales whether it's a buy-in for equity component, it's really just under uncovering what the business as a whole needs and then where multiple millions of followers can add value. So, it's a hard question to answer but it really just takes a little digging with each of the businesses and we don't do any just paid for posts is really creating year-long campaigns, if not multi-year campaigns. So, that's really how most of our deals get executed. It's really looking into the future and how we can create sales for the business as a whole.
Rob Cressy: (06:55)
So, now let's look into leveraging the online social platforms component to this. I think one of the things that have changed or been accelerated on the athlete side is going live on whether its Periscope or Instagram live or Facebook live. And it's an area where I feel that personal brands have been more successful than maybe the brand side of things that you work on because an athlete has access to his other athlete friends, or coaches, or people of influence. So, they can very easily jump on an IG live and chop it up and boom, it's now all over PTI or the media or the sports blogs everywhere. But if we think on the brand side of things, they're not necessarily thinking about that as often because brands are typically a little bit more risk-averse. And for some reason, a lot of them aren't exactly making those same connections that the athletes are. Can you sort of talk about that dichotomy between the brand and the athlete and the way that they're leveraging a social from a live component?
Aaron Zack: (07:58)
Yeah. I mean, I think everyone looks at their well starting off with their current platform, right? Let's utilize a Nike for an example, right there, they're constantly speaking to their current demographics and their current customer base outside of targeted ads and things along those lines. But they know the majority of athlete followers either have an interest in the athlete, the business as a whole. I think there's nothing more real than Instagram Live, right? It shows their true colors. I have clients that have Instagram account managers that schedule out content for an entire week with their current partnerships. Well, there's not a whole lot of personal touch behind that. And I love, as I said earlier, the reason I love having my clients on all of my conference calls is they get to ask their own questions. They get to be involved in the entire conversation because you're not going to be playing football forever.
So, having them involved in all strategic conversations allows them for life after football. But again, going on the Instagram live side, it shows their authenticity into believing in the fed brand. When they get on Instagram Live, their voice speaks on their passion for the brand.
Rob Cressy: (9:11)
Why aren't brands doing that more? So, Nike is sort of a big example of that, but brands come in all sorts of sizes. So, I'm completely on board with everything that you say, but why aren't we seeing more brands have a face or jumping on LinkedIn live to allow that brand heartbeat and engagement to shine?
Aaron Zack: (9:32)
I think part of it is internal staff, right? Like you have to have that man on the other side of the Instagram live having that interaction. And a lot of individuals look at it as a quick video. Like Instagram stories, it comes and goes. Even though you can have Instagram live videos live longer forever. I think they look at it as like it's a 24-hour window and then it's out the door, at least on these other partnerships it's living on their page. Granted a lot of individuals won't scroll past the 12th picture on Instagram, right? But it's at least living on the page. So, I don't know, I think a little bit of both sides of that it comes and goes as well as it takes just extra time on the business as a whole. So, if they can automate things and schedule things out over a timeframe I think a lot of businesses are looking at that. Even though I think on a personal ROI side, the businesses would be more advantageous to do Instagram live, but as a representative of my client, I'm never pushing that just because it takes extra time out of my client's day.
Rob Cressy: (10:37)
Right. With what you're saying immediately, I'm like, the value is in the inefficiencies because you know how many brands are thinking that exact same way. We didn't have the time, the knowledge, the resources, the budget, the insert, whatever excuse we'll have. The overwhelming majority of the industry is thinking that same way and we see the way that athletes are engaging or the way that regular people are engaging. Huh? I wonder if there's an opportunity to be that brand who's a little bit different where you're like, wow, brand X, Y, and Z are on LinkedIn live again. And I actually think of a great example that I saw last week from the tee-shirt brand Homage. I love their shirts and I saw that they were alive and I jumped in there and you know what they were doing? They were doing a live sports trivia where you as the follower could request to be on the sports trivia with a representative from their marketing team. When you do that, you can now win some free swagger free tee shirts. And not only was that great fan engagement there, but I’m also now talking about this on a podcast because of guess where I have not seen anybody else doing that? You just don't see brands doing that and the opportunity for them to provide value in a small, simple way. How much is it going to cost them to do a tee shirt as opposed to hundreds or thousands of people joining in and or seeing that repeatedly?
Aaron Zack: (12:04)
Yeah, and I think there are two individuals that are business individuals that do it very well. I saw Gary V does it extremely well, where fans of his jump on to the other side of the Instagram live and asking him live questions. I think that fan engagement is absolutely through the roof. Another business, that's a sports training goods company by the name of Power Hands.
They did it throughout the NFL Draft and had some guys that were entering the draft go on with their in house staff asking questions and they were doing giveaways of training glove products that they sell their sports training goods company. So, very small individuals doing it, but they do work. So, I'm fully on board with you on that
Rob Cressy: (12:46)
What I would say for the listener or someone viewing right now is mimic and watch success. Find the examples of the athletes or the brands who are doing it well. And if they can do it, so can you. Guess all it takes is a phone in some action to make it happen. And this is actually a great segue to the next thing that I want to talk to you about. That is athletes seeing themselves as media companies because certainly there's an extension to this where brands can see themselves as media companies. But the way that the athlete marketing landscape is evolving, it’s happening at a very rapid pace or going from Michael Jordan getting Gatorade and McDonald's sponsorships, and that being the way to players out there having their own Twitch channels and YouTube channels in creating multichannel content and now thinking about themselves as a media company. Can you talk about that from your perspective?
Aaron Zack: (13:47)
Yeah. Well, I'm going to divert it just a little bit. It's just as business equity rather than a media company. So, I look at the guy over my shoulder, Jaylen Smith. He looks at his self as his own business. He's 25 years old and has equity in 16 different businesses. So, the way he attacks endorsement deals, strategic partnerships is he'd rather have a small amount of equity in a business that he believes in rather than a quick cash deal. A lot of that really helps out with a lot of startups and smaller businesses as a whole, as it doesn't take a large amount of capital to work with a star linebacker on the team.
So, I look at individuals like Jaylen and other clients of mine that are bypassing cash deals for equity deals. So, they are looking at themselves as their own personal business rather than just quick cash situations. In addition, Jaylen has a lot of charitable contributions. He has a minority entrepreneur institute and he does media rounds from the first takes and ESPN Tours, Fox Sports Southwest, to talk about what he's doing off the field. So, he creates kind of a media exposure branding as a whole. So, that's kind of how they look at themselves as a business slash media as a whole. I hope I answered that all right for you.
Rob Cressy: (15:07)
You did, and have to give a shout out to Jalen Smith because I was probably the most impressed out of him out of any athlete that I had not been exposed to last year. I saw him during super bowl week on an interview with Colin Cowherd and I'm a Steelers fan and Jalen Smith plays for the Cowboys. So, I'm not likely to want to move. I'm not likely to want to root for someone in the Cowboys. And then I saw his interview and one, he was styling and profiling, and I liked that because everything you do as a representative of your brand. So, you see it, and I’m like, man, that guy is suited and booted. And then two, the things that he talked about in the way that he carried himself, I actually followed him on Instagram, which is mind-blowing for me as a Steelers fan to follow someone on the Cowboys because he was that impressive as a person. It really speaks to what you just said because there are now various ways for me to engage Jalen Smith. So, maybe I'm not a Cowboys fan, but I would sure love to support him in his philanthropies or some brands that he represents because I am more likely now to buy or use a brand that Jaylen Smith represents because I like his brand.
Aaron Zack: (16:22)
No, I completely agree. Yeah, we had a good time out at a Superbowl and he's all about taking it to the next level. He asked more questions and me when we go into endorsement conversations. Handing out clear sunglasses on stage with Colin Cowherd was an awesome opportunity to highlight one of his own personal businesses that he started. I don't have to coach him up. When we walk into meetings, we just go in and talk to him together and it's fun.
Rob Cressy: (16:51)
So, let's talk about the tech side of things because we're really starting to see a much larger blend between sports in technology and certainly in the athlete’s side of things. Oftentimes startups are very tech-enabled. I'm curious, number one, how do you make sure that you are at the forefront of the tech side of things?
Aaron Zack: (17:12)
Yeah, one of the first things that I started, cause I don't have a tech background, but that's where everything is going is I attended CES out in Las Vegas and I walked the floor with my business partner for three full days, just learning and meeting CMOs that were at their booth. I don't do any cold calling, it really comes within my network. That was one of the first business development setups that I attended since I launched Revolving My Media. And I've created a lot of partnerships through just individuals that I walked around the floor and met. It's built into our marketing budget moving forward. Granted we might skip next year with CES due to the climate of the world we live in, but since I started going to CES two years ago, I'm still continuing conversations. Some that haven't come to fruition yet, but some that are just now coming about. So, I'm constantly reading different online blogs in the tech space, but CES took it to the next level of building my portfolio and book of business out there for a few days.
Rob Cressy: (18:18)
What do you do when something is new to you or you don't understand it? Cause I think one of the things that oftentimes stops people is I don't understand things. I think e-sports is a great example.
Aaron Zack: (18:29)
I ask way too many questions until I understand it. I think that's part of the industry. The way my agency is structured is I'm constantly learning, right? Our business and the brand side, I don't have two individuals in the same company. So, I have everything from an OBGYN to a winery, to a cryotherapy business. So, I've been able to diversify myself in a lot of different fields and the way we become the quote-unquote, experts in the field and dominate the industry is by asking a lot of questions. So that's one of the biggest things for me.
Rob Cressy: (19:04)
I love that, and I'm the exact same way. I have this curiosity for life and business and even on podcasts like this, where oftentimes I'll be talking to someone and I might not know everything about their industry, but guess what? I know oftentimes the people who are listening to the podcast, they also don't know. So, when you can come in with this purity of, Hey, I don't know about this and that's okay because a lot of people think you need to know everything about everything, but I actually like the inverse when you can go in and start slowly learning.
I think about a few years ago I had a business partner of mine who is a growth architect, we'll call him, and he was big into the blockchain. I remember the first time that he mentioned the term blockchain to me and he mentioned it as if it was just the most casual word in the world. And it's just like, Oh, of course, Rob knows about blockchain. And I was like, man, I have no idea what in the world what this stuff is. So, you know what I did? I went on Amazon and I said what is the number one book on the blockchain? And I read one book on blockchain and from that knowledge, I believe I know more than 80% of people out there about blockchain just because I was willing to be curious about something that I did not know. And have I really used blockchain technology in my business at all? No, but it is really the understanding of knowing where things are going, what is possible, and if you were to start talking about it, I'm not going to be completely blind. I can at least be informed. I think that's important when thinking about forward-thinking technology, you want to be informed because so much of media right now, there's agendas and you don't know where they're coming from and you want to be able to come in and say, all right, I can at least intelligently listen or understand and then make an informed decision one way or another for myself or the people in companies that I'm working with.
Aaron Zack: (21:02)
I couldn't agree more. I'm constantly learning and even with my athlete clients, right? I don't know everyone, I don't know everything. I'll never create an exclusivity where the athlete can only work with me. My focus is on having my clients make as much money as possible. So, I'm focused on the South. They might have someone out in the Northeast. The most amount of money going into our athletes’ pockets as possible I think is better off. On our business side to work, every single day we're learning. It started off with my agency. It started off with just my business partner and we weren't offering PR. We weren't offering SEO. We weren't offering website build-out, but we hired the experts in those fields. You know, Google certified 10 plus years, etc. And then added that service. But until we have the right person and said categories, we didn't offer anything, and I think it goes to you. You're constantly learning. You're constantly trying to better yourself and better the individuals around you.
Rob Cressy: (22:01)
I'm curious, what has your eye right now from a forward-thinking standpoint, whether it's sports, technology, fan engagement, or marketing?
Aaron Zack: (22:11)
Anything on a digital platform to be honest with you. I don't want to pigeonhole anything. I'm one of the areas that we've spoken in-depth with the self-driving cars and that space. I've created partnerships in the past and I actually work with Lyft transportation. But with that being said, there's, there are new and more innovative areas, whether it's flying helicopter pads around the Dallas metroplex, that's being started by a Dallas based business. That's one area that I actually had at CES a couple of years ago and constantly learning about that space, they're based out in Fort worth. I think anything on the tech and innovation side and leveraging an online platform, I’m constantly learning. I can't give away all the tricks to my trade note.
Rob Cressy: (22:57)
Yeah. I think something that a lot of people would ask would be like, well, what about TikTok? I just think it's one of the things where, when you talk about social media and something's emerging, a few years ago it was Snapchat. And you even mentioned Gary V because Gary is one of the loudest voices in thought leadership in the marketing space. So, he's like to go all-in on Snapchat. Then all of a sudden here comes TikTok and people and brands are like, well, do I need to be on all of these things? Do I have to dance on camera and sing on camera? I'm curious how you balance or emerging platforms and limited attention for your athletes that you're working with. Because a lot of times people will be chasing things, but at the same time you're playing the long game because this could turn into the next Instagram.
Aaron Zack: (23:48)
Yeah. We definitely look at Instagram as the base, right. The number of followers that our clients currently have, they can hit the most amount of individuals. Snapchat for most of our businesses previously, it's kind of like the Instagram story component, right? It's there and gone. So, we really focused on what can live on for a long time. I'm not involved in TikTok. My business partner is. I don't know if I see it being on an Instagram level ever. I could see it being a come and go, but it's important to know about it. It's important to know the reach. It's important to know how to best utilize it on a business side. But I really look in the backbone, right? What's driving revenue today and tomorrow? That's Instagram and it's the followers that our clients have on Instagram. It's important to know and constantly be learning and involving kind of how we talked about.
Rob Cressy: (24:43)
We'll end on this. So, if you're not on TikTok right now and you don't understand it, here's my recommendation. Sign up for an account and just view what is on there. Because so often we try and make an opinion about something we have no idea on. Well, take the first step of which it says, sign up for an account and scroll because you'll go there and you'll be like, wait, what? This is what like a drill you people are doing? You're like, this makes no sense and it's dumb, but that's part of the learning process of this. You don't understand it, but guess what? You might not be the target demographic, someone else is. It's really the way in any social media marketing or building out a media company or branding. You really want to understand the tools that each platform gives you and then natively use them to put yourself in the best position to succeed.
Aaron Zack: (25:36)
I couldn't agree more. Couldn't agree more.
Rob Cressy: (25:40)
So, Aaron, I really enjoyed jamming with you. Where can everybody connect with you?
Aaron Zack (24:45)
Online I'm @AaronZack21 on Instagram and Twitter. Feel free to reach out to me. I'm happy to answer any and all questions in the sports space and really do appreciate you having me on Rob. This was really enjoyable.
Rob Cressy: (25:59)
Thank you. And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Do you know what I'm curious about? I would love to hear one athlete who you love the marketing or brand on social media. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand. On Instagram @FanFoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.