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The Graduate: The NFL’s Blake Stuchin Plots Football’s Digital Game Plan

There is a reason all of us Sternies choose to pursue an MBA here, and Blake Stuchin is honest about his.

“Some people choose the school based on the quality of the program or the nature of the job placement,” Stuchin says. “I chose it because I was already in Union Square and I had a great deal on an apartment.”

He is being tongue-in-cheek, of course. Talk with Stuchin for a few minutes about New York University and you’ll find he has experience with more schools under the NYU umbrella than most. While Stuchin is a Stern graduate, his parents met as students at NYU in the 1970s, and his wife holds a masters from NYU’s Integrated Marketing program.

Stuchin now puts his MBA to work as the Vice President and Head of Digital Media Business Development for the National Football League, but his path to Stern was not a straight line. After earning a liberal arts degree as an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, Stuchin worked in marketing and investment banking, and eventually found himself taking courses at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, now known as the School of Professional Studies (SPS).

“I signed up to take accounting and corporate finance literally just to learn accounting and corporate finance. I was not pursuing a masters,” Stuchin says. “I just needed to learn things I could apply every day. I would go and take accounting class twice a week and then I would go to my job and do accounting at work because I had to learn how to do this and apply it. I wound up not only liking the work I was doing, but the experience of being back at school.”

Learning these skills was all part of a grander plan. Stuchin has had a lifelong passion for media, dating back to his high school years when he parlayed his ability to write code into work with firms like Young & Rubicam. With the goal of one day being a senior executive at a media company, Stuchin tried to develop the right variety of skills that career would require. Following undergrad he went to Digitas where he worked on campaigns for Viagra, an experience that taught him how smart branding and marketing can launch a product toward success. He then moved into banking so he could interact with c-suite executives and learn the broader decision-making process that drives a business.

After enrolling in SPS, Stuchin took nine courses over two years before deciding it was time to get his MBA.

“I looked at a range of options, but I fell in love with NYU because I felt it was a place that was remarkably practical,” Stuchin said. “The admissions officer talked to me [at my initial interview] about NYU seeing New York City as an asset, and the fact that so many Sternies have internships while they’re in school and use the city and the network of the NYU community to learn more about the business world. The faculty is so heavily populated not only by great academics but also by practitioners who are running businesses or are senior business leaders themselves during the day and then teaching at night. That really impressed me.”

Stuchin spent his first two years after graduating in media investment banking at Jefferies, before a posting with the NFL shield in LinkedIn’s “Jobs You May Be Interested In” box caught his eye. Stuchin decided to click, and a decade later he now spearheads digital and social strategy for the No. 1 sports league in America and one of the sporting world’s biggest brands, weaving corporate partnerships and emerging technologies into an expansive array through which the NFL can engage its fans.

That work has not only expanded the NFL’s digital presence, it has also caught the attention of his peers. Earlier this year, Stuchin spoke on a panel at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and he was recently named to Ad Age’s 2021 40 Under 40 list in recognition of how the NFL’s digital engagement has grown under his stewardship.

Stuchin recently spoke with The Oppy for a deep dive on his journey to Stern, the explosion of digital content in sports, and what has him excited about the NFL’s future.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Prior to business school you had done some work in banking and marketing. What led you to get your MBA?

I have been fascinated by the media business my entire career and really my whole life. I started my career as a web developer. I taught myself how to write code when I was 14 years old, which sounds more impressive than it really was, but I was fortunate that growing up in New York City enabled me to work at some places in what’s now called the Web 1.0 Era, or the early dotcom bubble era. When I was graduating undergrad, I never thought I’d go back to school again and I never stepped foot on the offices of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, which I will add for your readers and for anybody who asks me, is a bad idea! Don’t do that! I was very focused on my pure liberal arts degree, I wrote a senior thesis, I graduated, I came home, I had no idea what I was planning on doing next, but what I did think was interesting to me was one day running a media business or a division of a larger media company. And I was focused on digital. I had been working at that point for six years. All four years of college and my last two years of high school, making websites for companies at a time when the client brief was “We need a website,” and “web-site” was hyphenated.

So, very descriptive.

Yeah, it was very much early days, but I was fascinated by how the internet could bring generations together and the nature of connectivity. I thought in order to pursue my career path of becoming a senior executive at a media company, I would need three skills: I would need marketing skills, to be able to sell a product or service, I would need management skills because business is a team sport, and I would need finance skills because I need to be able to keep score and figure out if the business I was working in was making money or not.

I had none of those skills.

But I thought that having been a web developer, I was closest to the marketing industry. I had worked for a series of marketing agencies even from the time I was pretty young. I had worked at Young and Rubicam at 16, not because I was some great talent but because they desperately needed anybody who could write code and I was really cheap. My first job out of college was at Digitas, which is now part of Publicis, one of the big advertising holding companies, and I was fortunate to be there at a time when I got to see all areas of the marketing business. My first client was Pfizer’s drug Viagra. It was funny and I learned a lot of things I really didn’t need or want to know, but I also learned a tremendous amount about how really good and smart agency marketers and smart brand managers can work together to market a relatively new product.

I eventually left the industry entirely and became an investment banker. I wanted to be in an industry where I could have interactions with Presidents, CFOs, CEOs, COOs and boards. When I started my career in finance, I had no training in anything financial. So I enrolled in NYU at night. Not at Stern, but what was then called the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, it’s now called SPS, the School of Professional Studies, which is a plug for that place as well. I love Stern. I also will say, underappreciated at NYU, is SPS, which has open-enrollment classes for people ages 18-90, who are there taking classes on a whole range of things. While I was taking these classes I realized I would like to go back to business school because I enjoyed being in financial services, but missed being in the media business. So I decided to go get an MBA with a focus on studying finance and going into media investment banking with a plan to either build a career in banking or, probably, knowing my own interests, come back to an operating business with digital media at its heart, at its core.

How did you end up at the NFL?

At Stern, I specifically focused on banking recruiting. After a summer at UBS I went to Jefferies in the media group covering mergers and acquisitions and capital raising for media companies. I was not looking to leave banking specifically, but in 2012 I was accepting a friend request on LinkedIn when the first role I would ever have at the NFL popped up in the “Jobs you may be interested in” box, which I had never clicked on before and haven’t since. 

What was exciting to me about it and remains the case now is that the role and the team I oversee now, but was a part of at the time, was focused on the NFL’s media business and in particular growing our digital presence. Both from a strategic deals standpoint as well as from a fan-development standpoint. I saw that as a special combination of the different career skills I had developed, first as a marketer and then as a banker learning how to do valuation and working on transactions.

So you always had an interest in media, and you ended up working for the NFL, but media has a number of different forms and areas. Was sports always an area you had planned or hoped to work in or was it just the right one that worked for you at that time?

I never thought I would have a career in sports. I never sought to have a career in sports. It never occurred to me to have a career in sports. Separately, I am an avid, deeply passionate sports fan and as a recurring theme, I have been fortunate to stumble into good luck of having things that I am personally interested in aligned with things I like to do professionally. As a media business the NFL is a rich and dynamic environment. I did not realize and did not have the foresight at the time to recognize the significance of the media business in the sports industry. I certainly do now and have spent the past ten years thinking about that every day.

You’re in a field in which things move so quickly — new platforms emerge it seems like every couple of months — can you talk a little bit about the challenge of being responsible for one of the largest brands, certainly in this country, probably in the world, and having to stay ahead of or at the forefront of understanding those platforms and technologies and how best to utilize them?

What’s exciting to me, and I think to my team, about what we do is that we spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of media and how as technology evolves and as products evolve how we can create compelling and rich experiences for our fans. The core of what we do is thinking about this ongoing battle for time and attention and creating, through partnership and through product and innovation. That means putting on live games on a broader set of platforms than ever before, it means expanding the ways people can access our content. It also means making new content that didn’t exist in a prior generation. 

What are some specific initiatives that you can point to that you’re particularly proud of or thought were particularly successful?

When I joined the NFL in 2012 we had a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and a staff of one. We had no strategy, no partnerships. Today we’re fully distributed on every major social media platform across the world, reaching more than 600 million fans. I get really excited about the fact that we’ve been able to create a range of new products that support our partners and have sustainable business models. A couple of examples of that: We partnered with Twitter in 2013 to put highlights on the internet. As simple as that sounds, that partnership started with four highlights a week from Thursday Night Football games, and a small collection of highlights on other platforms throughout the week. 

We now put out more than 150 pieces of original content every single week. On any NFL game day, you will see a highlight on Twitter nearly as quickly as you see it in the stadium. On TikTok we’re creating original hashtag challenges to encourage fans to express themselves through their own impersonations of their favorite touchdown dances and favorite celebration moments around all the biggest NFL tentpole moments of the year. And on Snapchat at any given time there are currently 2 million people wearing an NFL jersey as their bitmoji. Inside stadiums, fans for the past five years have been able to create an augmented reality Snapchat lens with a virtual helmet to put on their faces and share it with their friends and show how they express themselves as fans as part of that. We make five original exclusive shows a week on Snapchat. We have two original shows on YouTube, including Game Day All Access, which is the first ever show from NFL Films to be exclusively on YouTube; it’s a mic’d up player show built specifically for that platform. We also brought back NFL Follies this year, which for football fans is an iconic series from decades past showing the lighter side of football, showing us not taking ourselves so seriously. 

You say that you started with four highlights per week on Twitter. Looking at it now in 2021, it’s crazy to think that was the starting point, almost as if companies are just dipping their toe in the pool to see how the water is before they jump. When you say you started with just four clips per week and now you have this expansive ecosystem of digital content, how quick was the progression and the ramp up? And what was that like?

Sports media rights can be complicated and nuanced. There sometimes are rights that are with an existing partner that we need to navigate and manage. Sometimes there are business models that aren’t yet mature enough to support the approach that we think would be sustainable for the NFL and our partners. Sometimes we can move very quickly. Sometimes we will take our time because we want to be deliberate and we want to make sure that we’re getting it right for our fans and getting it right for our business partners. Sometimes that means we can be first to market and that’s very exciting. Sometimes it also means we have to be very comfortable accepting that we’re going to wait for things to play out and evolve before taking a step in. We have such a large brand and a large presence that we have to take that with great responsibility and ensure that when we come into a new space, we’re doing so feeling very comfortable that our brand will be protected and the experience for our fans will be one that is consistent with their expectations.

Broadly speaking, what are areas in the digital media content business that you’re particularly excited about in terms of emerging ways to expand the NFL’s brand and increase its engagement?

The future of the ways our fans watch the live game. The most exciting thing to me right now about the time that we’re in is that the technology has matured to a point where many things that we’ve been talking about for a long time but weren’t yet operationally feasible are no longer potentially available, but now inevitable. 5G technology, the proliferation of smartphones, and the ubiquity of social media platforms have enabled us to get to a point where our games are distributed in more places than ever before. You can still watch them on TV and always will be able to — that’s something we still believe in and isn’t going away. 

Beyond that, what’s really exciting is how our partners can work with us to continue to experiment to imagine new ways to engage with fans. For example, over the past few seasons on Twitch we’ve invited some of the biggest streamers to co-stream Thursday night games to their audiences. People like Ninja, TimTheTatman, and GoldGlove are watching the game. Because they’re avid sports fans — TimTheTatman is a Cowboys fan, Ninja is a Detroit Lions fan, and a big one — but they’re not trying to do an impression of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. They’re bringing in their audience to say, “Did you see that? Are you enjoying this? Let’s talk about what this is that we’re watching.” It feels like a giant virtual couch.

The other thing we did is partner with Nickelodeon last year to broadcast a Wild Card game on Nick. Nickelodeon did an amazing job making an NFL playoff game so engaging to a very young audience that’s discovering football in many cases for the first time. They developed really creative ways to bring familiar characters like SpongeBob and Young Sheldon into the broadcast. And then there’s the Slime Zone. When Michael Thomas caught a touchdown pass in the first quarter of that game, the end zone turned green and it became a virtual slime zone. That speaks to how we will continue to see innovative new ways to present the live game. We’ll see so much more of that. It will be more personalized, it will be more social, and it will be a more interactive experience.

I actually made a point to watch that broadcast. I don’t have kids, but I thought it was a ton of fun for someone who was in their 30s.

One of the great pieces of feedback we heard was that people who watched it with their kids, like I did, had a great time, but also people who are just young at heart enjoyed it as well. And that’s wonderful.

Pivoting back to you, you were named to Ad Age’s 40 Under 40 recently. How exciting was that and how did you learn you were going to be featured? Was it a surprise?

It was very exciting, and I was really humbled and grateful to be featured among a terrific class of executives across the advertising, marketing, media, and entertainment world. I was fortunate enough to have the support of some senior executives here who were kind enough to nominate me for that. I learned I was going to be featured, I guess a week or so before the issue was going to come out. When I was told I would be featured it was very special to me. Overseeing a digital business here in a place that has long valued digital, but whose roots are historically in television is exciting because it’s a great opportunity to feature the business and talk about all the things that we’re doing.

You say you always wanted to work in media but didn’t necessarily foresee a career in sports. The sort of professional experience you have now, where you’re featured in articles, you’ve been on a number of panels, you’ve spoken at the Sloan Analytics Conference, how big of a mental shift has it been for you to live that kind of a life? Is that something you ever thought you might be doing?

I don’t think of myself as being particularly public. I think there’s a part of this job and many jobs in the media business that involves being an evangelist for one’s product. In my case that’s football. To me that’s an element of sales and promotion that I think is important in any level of work that people do. To bring it back to Stern, I never sought to have a broader public profile, but I did appreciate that Stern as a community and as a university was so good at training us and giving us exposure to present stories, and to think about how to communicate a story clearly. It’s served me really well in multiple roles since I graduated.

For alums who maybe did banking or something else, but are interested in pivoting to sports, what kind of advice or suggestions would you have for those people?

The sports industry is very small, however there are a broad number of ways to get into it. There are many people who have long, fulfilling careers in football who never work at a league or a team. The sports industry includes so many different facets: our partners, our broadcasters, sponsors, consumer products licensees, people on the health, wellness and technology side. By the way, in the investment community, sports as an asset class is growing considerably. 

I think the other thing I would say is for those people specifically interested in doing strategy at the NFL, working in sports and having a knowledge of the sports industry may be helpful, but more helpful is understanding the core foundational skills that business school students get both from classes and from the experiences they pursue outside of them. Understanding financial analysis, valuation, competitive strategy, marketing and operations. All of those things come together because we’re an operating business and we have to think about every one of those elements together to be able to execute on the initiatives we pursue here.

Ok, last thing I’ll ask you, and this is very broad, what was your favorite part of the Stern experience? Was it the courses? The social aspect? What is the thing beyond just the professional skills that you look back on and think of here?

It was the togetherness of the community. I was blown away by the fact that from the day I got to Stern to the day I graduated and in the ten years since, every person I met – administrators and students alike – was supportive of one another. They wanted to get to know me, they wanted to help, they wanted to understand what they could do to be friends, to be colleagues, to be a support system, and they expected to hold me to a standard that I would pay it forward. I’ve been trying to do that ever since I got on campus in 2008.

Photo courtesy of National Football League

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