This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration.
By: Joe Londergan, @joehio_
Not everybody is fortunate enough to know exactly what they’re meant to do with their life from childhood. However, when your first word is “ball,” you get a good general idea. This was the case for Zach Soskin, Grassroots Sports Marketing Coordinator for adidas, growing up in his native Minnesota.
“When I was growing up, I absolutely knew I wanted to work in sports. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that my biggest passion besides sports is people, so to be able to combine those two every day is beyond a dream come true.”
“My first job was as a ticket sales intern with the Minnesota Twins when I was 16. That was a great experience for two summers that solidified my desire to work in sports. During my internship with the Twins, everyone who I talked to in the industry about college was adamant that if I really wanted to work in sports, the University of Oregon was where I needed to go.”
Soskin spent his undergraduate career at the University of Oregon highly involved in the Warsaw Center for Sports Marketing and taking advantage of opportunities like the Warsaw Sports Business Club, which he was elected president of his senior year, and a highly sought after internship with the Ducks’ football staff in recruiting.
“I think 100 kids applied and they hire five a year, but it wasn’t glamorous. I literally started folding the mail and then worked my way up from there. By the end of it, I got to work on some pretty cool analytics projects and create marketing materials. That was a great experience, getting to learn that whole world and that’s become tremendously valuable for me now, since I’m still working with these high level high school athletes. That internship was one of the defining moments of my college experience. We were there until three in the morning some nights and really put a lot into it. I learned a lot and, through that experience, I was able to get an internship with an NFL agency (Athletes First). Without that opportunity, I’m probably not at adidas.”
Working with a Nike entity like Oregon Football and serving his current role at adidas, Soskin now has insight into both of these giants of the athletic apparel world.
“One of my major projects while at Oregon Football was working with a team to overhaul the @OregonGridirion social handles. This project was done with considerable help from the marketing department of Oregon’s apparel sponsor, and being able to learn from brand professionals firsthand was a very valuable experience. “
Soskin spent his first 18 months at adidas as the social media specialist for the brand’s baseball and football marketing efforts. Late last year, however, he transitioned into his current role in grassroots marketing for adidas football, where he works to increase adidas’ brand exposure with sponsored high schools and colleges, elite 7-on-7 teams, the Army All-American Game and adidas’ combine training facility for NFL athletes.
“It’s the greatest. I’m going from event to event, meeting with top coaches, top high school athletes, top college athletes and working with all different trainers. It’s a lot of fun. I get to travel all over the country and whether it’s in Los Angeles, Miami, or Austin, I’m always on a football field. To me, that undoubtedly beats sitting behind a desk every day.”
This first summer in his new role, Soskin helped to spearhead adidas’ new initiative to further integrate into the world of 7-on-7 football.
“We made a really big commitment to sponsor the best teams, run the best events and just be part of the best of 7-on-7 in any way possible. The response from the kids and the coaches and the relationships that we built and the loyalty from our partners has been incredible.”
Pylon runs a series of these 7-on-7 tournaments in conjunction with Jordan brand. In one of the biggest of these tournaments, the final came down to two adidas teams. Soskin details what he describes as an example of this loyalty and one of his proudest moments as a marketer.
“Event staff and their sponsor go to hand the kids new gear and the adidas teams didn’t want to wear it because of their loyalty to us. Finally, they had to wear it in order to play the game, but the kids on Midwest Boom, who later in the year won both major 7-on-7 national championships, started chanting ‘three stripes’ as they’re trying to film a video for the event sponsor. It’s not because they owed us anything, it’s just the relationship that they had and the loyalty that they had to us as people and partners.”
Part of the reason that adidas sees this kind of brand loyalty is their ability to keep fun, excitement and balance at the forefront of their philosophy from their design and advertising, to their client relations to their workplace atmosphere.
“I think that comes from a few different pieces. One is being a German company. The work life balance is just so much more emphasized in Europe, especially compared to how cutthroat the American business world can sometimes feel. adidas is very competitive and results oriented, but the competitiveness is balanced with a sincere focus on the people and our lives, not just what we do in the office.”
“The second part is having the Originals piece. We’re a sports company first, but we’re also the hottest lifestyle brand out right now. Kanye, Pharrell, Pusha T, all these different artists and entertainers who are representing our brand. When your brand is closely tied to these people who are culture, who are lifestyle, it just becomes a part of what you do.”
adidas integrates these type of entertainment influencers for their more traditional sports lines as well. A prime example of this is legendary hip hop artist Snoop Dogg, who was a promising high school football player in his own right, prior to the launch of his musical career, and his involvement with adidas football. However, as Soskin and the rest of adidas can tell you, Snoop takes his role in the football world very seriously.
“What I think is great for someone like Snoop in particular, because he’s thought of as an entertainment guy, but when he’s with us and our group is presenting to him, it’s strictly football. We call him Coach Snoop around here. He’s so authentic to it. Obviously his fame comes as a rapper, but nowadays he’s spending just as much time working on the Snoop Youth Football League and those kids and the kind of pipeline of talent that has come through there (DeAnthony Thomas and Jack Jones are good examples). He’s so heavily invested in it. It’s a really cool deal where you get to see this guy working on his real passion, outside of music.”
In terms of staffing at every level, from Coach Snoop to it’s designers, adidas looks for the same archetype to purvey the 3 Stripe Life: “People who do incredible work, but also know how to have fun and make that work fun.”
“I think a lot of times you end up with better work that way. I’m on about 70 flights the first six months of the year, but I’m traveling with people that I really like. So it’s okay that I’m going to be working 15-hour days with them. It not only makes life better, it also makes the work better.”
Late nights and draining travel schedules are positively correlated with success in the sports world. All the more reason you need to find joy in your work and keep your eyes on the prize, as Soskin can attest.
“You have to love it and you have to maintain the bigger picture. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy. This sense of purpose and perspective was something that was instilled in me while working for Oregon Football. Some nights there, you might be working on this really cool presentation for a five-star recruit who is coming into town the next day. That’s when it is easy. However, some nights are just data entry for this analytics thing we’re working on. There, you can’t think of it as just data entry. You have to remind yourself that you’re doing something that’s going to help us identify a player that can potentially help us win a national championship. It’s always keeping the bigger picture in mind. It’s not about the work that you’re doing, it’s what you’re working for.”
It doesn’t take long upon first meeting Soskin to realize how well he fits to adidas’ work hard/play hard mentality, as well as how much he truly loves his work. He does admit that there can be frustrations that come from working on high profile projects like his.
“The only part (of my work) that kind of gets a little goofy is because our company is so visible, everyone thinks they know how to do our jobs. People will send me critiques about things well outside of the scope of my role or ask about things that I cannot discuss publicly, so while I love most conversations about our brand and my role here, there are some conversations that can be difficult.”
“The other thing is that I love it, but people think I can just turn it off and that’s not really the case. I have friends who work at adidas as well as our competitor and if people heard our conversations, they would think we’re the biggest nerds ever. We’ll be watching a game and all of a sudden we’ll just start talking about someone’s marketability and their shoe deal. It doesn’t stop. I remember it was one of my roommates’ birthdays and we went out to dinner and there’s an NBA playoff game in the background. We literally started talking about some random backup’s marketability. We’re so obsessed with it that we take it home with us and it doesn’t stop. I love my job and it never feels like I’m working hard, but I’m always working.”
When you sink so much of yourself into what you do, certain aspects of the sport industry become difficult to explain to friends and family in other industries or people trying to get their foot in the door.
“Some people have this type of thinking that because they enjoyed winning their fantasy basketball league, they’ll be happy working in sports. Just because you love sports doesn’t mean you’ll love working in sports. There’s a huge difference. I’m a massive sports fan and I love working in sports, but you can easily be a sports fan and quickly find out that working in sports isn’t for you. The other thing is the misconception that just because you work for adidas, it’s easy to be best friends with Kanye West or James Harden. If you’re looking just for access to athletes and you just want to use the opportunity to act on your fandom, this isn’t the industry for you.”
Trying to work your way into being besties with Ye himself is the wrong way to grow a strong professional network, but there is a right way. Growing this network becomes quintessential to climbing the professional ladder.
“If you’re trying to get a job in this industry based solely off of your resume, I pray for you. This is such a competitive industry that people need to know who they’re hiring before they hire them. You have to be more than a name on a piece of paper. For example, my DM’s are open. I’ve had some awesome conversations with high school kids, college kids and some professionals thinking about switching industries. Just based on some of those conversations, we’ve set up informational interviews and gone from there. Just trying to be more than a resume and focusing on building relationships is going be extremely beneficial in the long run.”
While the sports industry is an area where maintaining a network has become incredibly important, it’s a little more complex than the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” as Soskin can explain.
“I think the biggest thing is when people say ‘who you know,’ it’s not about what your last name is, it’s about the fact that you went out and met people for yourself and proved to them that you were a capable, hardworking person. Just because someone likes you doesn’t mean they want to hire you. They need to like you, think that you’re smart and that you can do a great job. You never feel more vulnerable than when you’re recommending someone else for a job. If I’m applying for a job, I know I’m going to work my tail off. But if I’m recommending you for a job, all I can do is hope that you’re going to. It takes a lot for someone to put a strong recommendation behind somebody. It’s not what you know or really even who you know, it’s what you’ve proven, which is I guess is a combination of both.”
His advice on building relationships is invaluable, but perhaps the most refreshing thing about Zach Soskin is his unrelenting optimism: a characteristic that has come to define him as a professional since his college days.
“I always say that I have good days and better ones. That line stared in college when one day my dad called and asked how my day was going and that was my response. The answer just came out, but it has stuck with me. I wake up every day with that attitude and this perspective helps me remember that whatever problem I’m dealing with at work isn’t a serious problem compared to what others are going through that day. I love what I do and I care deeply about my work, but I’m happy, I’m healthy and that perspective of optimism is a defining characteristic for me.”
Front Office Sports thanks Zach Soskin for his time, his wisdom, and his insight into what the 3 stripe life is all about.
Follow Zach on Twitter here!
Connect with Zach on LinkedIn here!