Chad Capellman had the chance to re-connect with a colleague from his student newspaper days, Jon Schwartz. After successful runs with NASCAR and the National Football League, Jon has just begun his role as Senior Vice President, Communications, Marketing, Digital & Social Media at the Big Ten Conference.

They talked about Jon’s goals for his new role at the Big Ten, and some of his favorite moments during his time as Senior VP of Communications and Public Affairs at the NFL. Those moments included preparing for a Zoom draft during Covid-19, coordinating messaging around the league’s 100th anniversary, the league’s response to Black Lives Matter protests and the satisfaction that came from league’s Coming Out Day promotional efforts.   

They talked about how the role of public affairs has evolved and the challenges and opportunities that exist when every single player can now be their own media entity. 

Jon brought us back to school to share what he’s gleaned about the media consumption and creation habits of current students as a professor at New York University, and how his own lessons learned during his student newspaper days helped start him on a path that led to the creation of his own mentoring podcast.

Jon also talked about the evolution of NASCAR and why it has a love-hate relationship with a certain Will Ferrell racing movie. 

Podcast Highlights

1:50 – On how his new role is going and how his first Big Ten football media day went: “It went great. And it was really a great opportunity for me to meet and learn from lots of people who already work in college sports. Particularly at our member institutions, we have 14 amazing ones and they’re great brands like Michigan and Michigan State, Minnesota, and Nebraska, Ohio State University. THE Ohio State University. I cannot mess that one up. Rutgers and Maryland, which is my alma mater and your alma mater. I thought it went great.”

“I’m the beneficiary of lots of institutional knowledge here at the conference office, but also at the schools themselves. And so that’s what I was really most excited about. Meeting some of my counterparts in the universities — we call them member institutions — and learning from them and meeting some of the really hardworking and tireless media members that cover our conference.”

2:50 – On what he’s looking to accomplish in his new role: So I’m a quintessential outsider. I have never been in collegiate athletics outside my time spent playing club hockey at the University of Maryland. So really not a Division-I sport, certainly not the college athlete experience. And there’s a steep learning curve and I think it would be foolish not to deny that.”

I am bringing some strong experience from places I’ve been. All sides of the business: league, team, agency, brands all the different sides of sports. The last 10 years at NASCAR and the NFL. And so I think that was also a bit of a benefit. And, for me– I think I said it at the top — it’s really understanding what’s going on on campus and inside the athletic departments of all of our member institutions, understanding where we’ve been, and really figure out where we’re going. And build relationships, not just on campus, but with media members and the folks who cover our conference and the 28 sports that the conference sanctions, and of course our partners. Not just the media partners, but the ones that put on bowl games and the ones that help the conference move forward every day. So it’s a lot of new people to meet, but it reminds me a little bit of the time when I was starting at NASCAR and doing the same thing in an industry that was, pretty foreign to me at the time as well.”

4:30 – On being a Maryland alum when they were in the Atlantic Coast Conference and if joining the Big Ten feels like a homecoming: It absolutely feels like a homecoming and, I first interacted with President Pines, who is new to his role as the most senior ranking official at the University of Maryland. He welcomed me and he said, “It’s great to have another Terp in the family.” And, that was such a warm feeling. I do feel like I’m home here. And I need to, just to be careful not to play favorites because we love all 14 of our member institutions equally.”

5:16 – On what some of his favorite memories and moments were during his time as Senior Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs with the NFL: “You think back to when I was there, it was a really interesting period of time. I was there during part of the pandemic. I was there, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I was there when we had our first virtual draft. And, I was there through a couple of Super Bowls that were pretty incredible and a couple of drafts that were pretty incredible and a couple of kickoffs.”

“But the league, it was a time of great change. I think it still is in the NFL. And so I was there during that part and I think the moments that stood out for me, the big ones, were the ones where you were part of being able to be part of history. So I had the opportunity to help lean in and move the ball forward.”

On the 100th season of the NFL, which was a remarkable experience helping to shepherd that from a marketing communications perspective, with lots of great colleagues, it was an honor and a privilege to be able to work on the content. It was such a cool initiative. It reached and stretched across every club and network that we dealt with. Every player, every legend, it just felt so big and so integrated. And it felt like we were all working together to elevate and celebrate a hundred seasons of the NFL. And that was really incredible being in Miami standing on the field when we had one youth football player brought it to the field to look forward into the next a hundred years when we had a Super Bowl in Miami a couple of years ago. And that was really cool way to culminate it. A year after we had celebrated the all-time team, which was absolutely incredible.” 

And the other ones, I think back to where we started. The onset of the pandemic in March of 2020 was a pretty spectacular event. It was jarring. And I think the first real sort of sporting event that came after that, if memory serves is, free agency. And there was lots of criticism of the NFL for even moving forward with free agency, but free agency is ostensibly meetings and phone calls and things between people and football, operations, general managers and head coaches.”

And so “how could you possibly be moving forward? We’ve got a pandemic, et cetera.” Then, of course, the draft. How could you even possibly contemplate doing a draft? But we did it. We pulled together swiftly in a matter of weeks, the first ever virtual draft.” 

Now think about this for a second. This was back before Zoom was really part of the lexicon of our culture. It was out there, but it was really before the technology was really so commonly used in every household in America right now seemingly. And so the notion and the prospect of doing a draft securely and on time, a team’s on the clock. If they miss the clock they’re off the clock. So getting a pick in, that’s a stressful thing. And being on camera, if you are a draftee; if you are a head coach, a general manager, or if you’re the commissioner … making all that work, it was a real modern marvel to produce that in the time that we did. And being part of that, for me, it was an opportunity to bring people together who had an interest in the sport, whether it was the clubs or the networks, or my colleagues across the NFL league office and the network, to just put together the first-ever real, and the biggest tune-in effort the league had ever done.”

Just to help people understand, hey, we’re moving forward with the draft. It’s not going to be in person, and it’s going to look totally different. And we had to actually have to explain to people, and show people through different tools, here’s what the draft is going to look like. We’re going to be doing a draft-a-thon. Here’s what to expect. Here’s a viewer’s guide in here. And it was the most viewed draft ever. And that was really incredible.”

“The last one was incredibly special. I had a chance to be part of, it was the NFL’s first-ever LGBTQ+ campaign. It was around National Coming Out Day. It was initially planned for Pride Month last year. But it had to be jettisoned, obviously, because everything was rightfully focused on all the news events surrounding the murder of George Floyd and all the elevated conversation around Black Lives Matter and social justice and social injustice and racial and socioeconomic inequality”

“And on National Coming Out Day, we actually pushed out this campaign. It featured a PSA, it featured an op-ed from our top football official, Troy Vincent, who’s a University of Wisconsin alumnus. And it was a pretty special …”

It a pretty special moment. For the NFL to come out, to do a campaign, supporting the LGBTQ community, was pretty incredible. And it got some great attention. I think the moment that was really cool. There was someone I had never met who worked in LA, a colleague of mine. And about a week after the campaign was launched she came out on our website and, that was pretty darn cool.”

And to know that I was part of a project like that, that made somebody comfortable to publicly come out in that way was pretty special.”

10:46 – On how the role of public affairs / public relations has evolved within the NFL: I think it’s evolved similarly across all sports, I think years ago. It was very much of a public information office model. And you could say the same about college sports. You could say the same, I think in many ways, about baseball and basketball and hockey. And I think the line between marketing communications continues to blur a good way. There’s much more integration happening and public relations, public affairs, communications, whatever you want to call it, it’s getting much closer to being part of the corporation’s or the company’s or the brand’s or the league’s plans. And so it’s reflected in how one of those entities is actually going to go to market. And that part is cool because you’re closer to it that you feel more integrated and it’s much more part of a strategy as opposed to being separated. So that part is pretty cool.”

12:08 – On how, when every single player is now a media entity how that affects his day-to-day: I think the biggest thing that everyone is following is what’s going to happen with athlete availability in general. And so, what we love about sports is that now players and student athletes have their platforms. And I say now, because they have had it for a while, but they continue to get bigger and better and more influential every day. That’s great. We want them to have their voice and put out their message and express themselves creatively. That’s great. People report off of that. That’s fantastic, but now, where is that going in terms of what a professional athlete or, what they’re required to do as part of their participation in that sport? What happened with Naomi Osaka in tennis I believe it’s a watershed moment. Because I think lessons are being drawn from across all sports about where that line is between it’s their decision or it’s their obligation to do media abilities. And that, in a way, that’s a good thing for the athlete. There are also unintended consequences with that in terms of the ability to share that story with fans and feeling closer to that athlete.”

And media — and I’m a big believer in the power of sports journalism and storytelling. We’ve got the most amazing collection of sports journalists anywhere in the world in this country. And so, they do such a good job of bringing the story and bringing the athlete closer to the fans and further humanizing them. There’s always unintended consequences when you make a decision like that, even though that there are good things that come from it as well. So it’s a really fine line and it’s going to be a debate that’s going to be had for …that’s one I’d keep an eye on, for sure.”

16:05 – On his experience as a professor at the Preston Robert Tisch Institute of Global Sport at New York University and what he gained from the experience: It was. And I have yet to make my decision for the spring. I usually teach a spring class or two. I have yet to make that decision yet. But that’s a pretty cool experience just being around, young people who are trying to break into sports who are of a different generation than me.”

“And I’m sure people who are listening, who are in a workplace, can relate to what I’m about to say. We sit around conference tables and in offices and in board rooms and talking about how do we reach millennials? How do we reach and connect with Gen Z? How are they consuming? But unless you have a child in that age group, or you are in that age group, and you’re in the meeting yourself, you are not collecting perspective from Gen Zers. And I have an audience with them every week, which is such a benefit for me in my job. Because I’m able to say, “Hey, here is how a Gen Zer is consuming their favorite contest.”

“I am a Seattle Mariners fan. They’re my feed on Reddit. And I watch that way.” Whoa. I had no idea that was happening and how many people are doing that? Twelve hands go up. Aha. And I’m able to bring that back and say “here’s what’s happening” whereas I may not have known that inherently.”

17:50  – On grasping what the baseline starting point is for a younger generations when it comes to media consumption and media creation: “Years ago … we talked a lot about cord cutters. Nobody talks about cord cutters anymore. Then it was digital natives, and now it’s just kinda like everybody. You don’t actually refer to these two generations with that vernacular, because we’re all now consuming via streaming or remotely or on the go and VR devices. Now the conversation shifts to content, to your point.”

“On what he learned about NASCAR as managing director of integrated marketing communications, and running a 30-plus person team spread over four offices.”

It was (a lot to keep track of), and it is. And if you think about NASCAR many of your listeners may not. And I think maybe it’s because, and I didn’t growing up because one I didn’t go outside and play NASCAR in my backyard. ‘Cause you can’t, right?”

Well, or if you have a go-kart and you go go-carting or, maybe that’s the closest thing to it. Or if you’re around racing. I grew up in the Northeast. I grew up in Northern New Jersey. The closest racetrack was Pocono Raceway. If I wanted to drive a little farther, it was the Monster Mile in Dover, Delaware.”

NASCAR, in many ways when I joined, was a very Southern, white-only sport. That was very grassroots focused, very insular. And not because they didn’t try to change or expand its fan base. It’s just that fandom continued to be passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, exclusively. And it was in many ways, a regional sport, and it was one that, had a very high barrier for entry.”

“So think of it this way. If you have never been to a sporting event ever, and you walk into an NFL stadium and you see one team carry a ball over a goal line and six points go up on the board. And then the extra point goes up, seven points, and they do it all over again. By the end of the half, you’re pretty much going to figure out there’s one team that’s in the lead, and they have these color jerseys and they’re playing us another team that’s losing. They have these color jerseys. I get the object of the game and the scoring system. With NASCAR, it’s hard to figure out who’s leading. Sometimes there are a lap cars, so a slower car that’s in last place is ahead of the first place car because you’re on the same playing surface. You’re going round and round on a lot of the ovals. And the scoring system was different. It’s just hard to explain. You showed up at the front door of a race track, and if you’ve never been to a race before, even if you’ve never been that track before, you didn’t know where the bathrooms were, you didn’t know where you get your media credentials, your tickets, if they accept credit cards, where to sit, where to get the best perspective. And then good luck, because you’re going to sit down next to somebody, and try to have a conversation over this loud noise.”

And so, NASCAR has done so much to create these experiences where somebody has this sherpa experience when they go to the racetrack. And that has lowered the barrier for entry. Not just for new fans, but for new fans of color. And last year it was two years ago when they removed the Confederate flag permanently. When Bubba Wallace, one of their drivers, they found a noose in his stall, and he’s the only Black driver in the Cup Series. They found a noose in his stall in Talladega. And, I can remember vividly watching from afar, what an amazing sight it was, to watch a legion, thousands of people walk their car, walk behind Bubba Wallace’s car as he rolled it to the starting line that May was absolutely incredible. So as a long way of saying, it’s different, but they’re extremely proud. And I can tell you this, as I met some of the kindest, smartest, most empathetic, strategic and diverse individuals I’ve ever encountered in my life in NASCAR.”

22:10 – On the significance of his NASCAR team winning the PR Week In-House Team of the Year award and being named the PR Week 40 Under 40 PR News Corporate Social Responsibility Leader of the Year: “It was satisfying to know that I was doing it with great teammates that helped push us forward and do different things and fall forward. I say that a lot because we tried new things when it was the hardest. And that was extremely rewarding because I don’t think anybody would have ever thought of NASCAR as an entity that would ever be in consideration for such a recognition. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and rewarding. And I think at the time it was a real feather in the cap of the sport, which was trying to break down some of those barriers and become more diverse and become more progressive. And it was on the eve in many ways of the new media rights deals. And it was really important that we were able to get that recognition and to have that conversation.”

23:14 – On his favorite line from the movie Talladega Nights and how NASCAR felt about the film: “If you ain’t first your last.” That’s a good one. There’s so many good ones. But that was one that NASCAR had a love-hate relationship with. Because, obviously, it really exaggerated some of the characteristics and characters in the sport. But at the same time, it shines such a bright light on the sport, that it almost made it hard not to watch.”

24:05  – On how his podcast, the Sports Mentoring Project, came about and what he talks about on it: “I think it came about … I was standing in line at Best Buy to get some new earbuds to go work out in. And it just dawned on me that I’ve had so many people throughout my life and career who have taken time they didn’t have to help me. And to mentor me. And I’ve realized that, man, I owe this one, a call and I owe her a call. I owe him a call. I just need to do something to say thanks. And it dawned on me that I built up because I’ve been just been around a long time, I built up a great network of people. I started calling around and seeing if anybody would be willing to talk with me about the role of mentoring in sports.”

I believe there’s no better example of mentoring than in sports. You have a coach, you have a player. And that dynamic is pretty critical to winning. But it just doesn’t happen with, order given, order taken. There’s stuff that happens behind the scenes and during the week to create the mechanism for success.”

25:00 – On his early days with an editor at his school newspaper: “And I tell the story a lot and it’s a story I’ve told to you, and it’s a story, you know, very well. One of my first experiences with mentoring was at the University of Maryland. I know President Pines talks a lot about the peer learning experience and the total student experience at Maryland.”

I was a young, aspiring sports writer. I was in the Merrill School for Journalism. And I sought an opportunity to work for the school newspaper, the Diamondback. And a young sports editor there, I think he may have been the same age or a year younger than me, assigned me a story.”

I went out and I wrote the story. It’s about a player on the football team. I came back into the Diamondback. I handed him my story and he looked at it for about 10 seconds. And he nodded and he handed it back to me with $15 on top of it. And I said, “What’s this?” And he said “Well, it’s your story and $15. That’s our going rate for a story.” I said, “What do you mean? Why are you handing it back to me? He said, “This is your first and last story for the Diamondback.” And I was slack jawed. I was, I couldn’t even digest what was being told to me. So I turned to walk away. And then I stopped myself. I just had to ask, I blurted out “Can you give me some, a real answer? What’s going on here?” And this young person turned to me and said, and kinda took a deep breath, and said, “Pull up a chair.” And I proceeded to sit behind him as he methodically and carefully edited my work in front of me.”

From writing a really strong lead that was packed with news, teaching me inverted pyramid style, teaching me how to be concise with my words. Teaching me how to use more powerful words, my word choice, my word placement, and he turned a really crappy story that was not going to make the paper in to a story that was halfway decent that did make the paper.”

And that was one of the first times I realized that mentoring happens all around us. It happens in schools and at universities, it happens in the workplace. It happens in sports, and it made me realize the power of mentoring. And that really ignited a passion in me for writing.”

Now, the name of that person was Chad Capellman. It was you! And you did this for me. And it’s a great gift. And so in many ways, I started this podcast as an homage to people like you, to you and others like you who have had an impact on my life.”

28:45 – On a great lesson he learned from ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian: Super nice guy. He went to Maryland. He desperately tried four times to get a job at the Diamondback. And he was rejected four times. He ended up then having a monster career in journalism, both print and broadcast. And I, chuckle. I had him on the podcast. He told a story to me about the advice that he gives to people. I ran into him at a baseball game with my son and one of my sons is really interested in being a broadcaster. And I said, “Mr. Kurkjian, will you give him some advice?” He said “Consume. Be curious. Always be curious. Always be learning.””

And he shared a story with me that he spent over 20 years, every day of his life, cutting out every box score from every Major League Baseball game from the newspaper.”

He said it equated to 30-some-odd days of his life, the time it took him to do that. And I followed up. I said “Why did you do that?” He said, “Because I’m going to find something that’s going to make me curious. And if I’m curious, I’m going to ask. And I know if I ask, I’m probably going to get a great answer.””

And I was like, you know what? That, that’s a pretty cool example of how, when you put in that work quietly, it ends up paying dividends down the road.”

30:20 – On what he attributes his self-proclaimed superpowers of “affability and positivity” to:
I guess I attribute it to the fact that, I get to wake up every day and do what I love to do, which is work in sports and be around great people. And I think that if you carry yourself that way, you have the ability to infect other people with those attributes. And that’s where I am here. I’m in a really amazing workplace, the Big Ten Conference, with an amazing leader in Commissioner Kevin Warren. And he’s trying to build a culture here and I’m thankful to be a part of it. And I think. Those traits, hopefully, serve lots of people, in terms of bringing teams together. Because if it’s the words that are opposite of those traits, I’m not sure our teams will be as effective.”