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New Amazon Prime Video Series Provides Car Fanatics With Tricks, Stunts, and Branded Content

An innovative twist to branded content has helped Hoonigan generate over half a billion views on YouTube and an online presence like no other.

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In 2009, much of the world saw the extent of professional rally driver Ken Block’s talent with the release of the first Gymkhana video. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of Gymkhana, imagine the high-speed precision tricks and stunts you see performed by street-style skateboarders, but with a rally car.

To date, Block has been front and center for eight more Gymkhana films, which have garnered over half a billion views on YouTube.

In 2010, Block and Brian Scotto, long-time editor of award-winning automotive magazine 0-60, professionally joined forces to create Hoonigan, a brand that has now become synonymous with the lifestyle of car fanatics all over the world. Scotto serves as the brand’s chief creative officer, and has been behind the camera for the duration of Gymkhana’s decade-long run as a viral hit.

On Friday, fans of the brand will see Hoonigan’s next step as a brand and as a media production entity: the release of “The Gymkhana Files” on Amazon Prime Video.

“It’s kind of crazy for us because Hoonigan has grown so much, especially in the past couple of years,” Scotto reflected. “When we started, there wasn’t a cool brand which had a young kind of attitude to it and encompassed automotive enthusiasts in the way that DC Shoes (Block’s previous company) did for skateboarding and snowboarding.”

The first step in Hoonigan creating its desired image was through apparel — an avenue very familiar for Block.

READ MORE: Superstars Help Showcase Importance of Social Media Value for Teams 

Scotto and Block wanted a look that people would immediately mentally attach to racing and the rally-car subculture. As Scotto can attest, the long-term plan for Hoonigan was always bigger than simply being an apparel company. After a lengthy career in media and the success of the first Gymkhana films, Scotto and Block recognized that they could push the brand further with their respective skills by creating content for YouTube and other platforms.

“We never wanted to call it a clothing company or an apparel company because we always wanted to be more than just the product label,” Scotto says. “We weren’t really sure of where that was going to go. So, we just referred to it always as an automotive lifestyle brand, which is super vague, but it was vague for a reason. We knew we wanted to grow out of it. We weren’t going to go back into traditional media to help promote our brand. Instead, we began to create our own media.”

The media production wing of Hoonigan became known as Hoonigan Media Machine in 2016. In addition to the content promoting its own products, Hoonigan Media Machine has worked with brands like Ford, Can-Am, and Edelbrock to reach the coveted 18-34 age demographic. The success in that area has allowed the team to grow from about eight employees in 2016 to 35 now.

Much of Hoonigan’s best work, though, can be found on its YouTube channels, where the team produces 13 videos a week — six on the main channel and seven on the second channel.

“We’re around 1.7 billion minutes of watch-time on YouTube,” Scotto said. “We’re putting up pretty substantial numbers that are competing with major TV networks. View-duration data tells us that 70 percent of the time, people are watching the whole video too. That’s what we really pride ourselves on. We aren’t generating just a clickbait-type viewership where people watch for a few seconds. Our viewers are becoming a part of the culture.”

READ MORE: What Sports Marketers Think of IGTV

In creating Gymkhana films, the Hoonigan team has learned how to create a series of viral hits not quite like any other stunt videos out there. Scotto claims that the inspiration for these came mostly from skateboarding videos and sports highlights, with some small influence from action movies.

“We wanted to take that skate-video style, which is high action,” he said. “But there’s also this reverence to it, and it’s more about the moment than the camera work. The number-one thing to tell people is ‘don’t film the way Hollywood films. Shoot it the way you would with football games. You have to have all your cameras on all the same time, and it doesn’t matter if one of your cameras sees another camera because you’re there to capture a moment. You’re not there to manufacture.'”

That isn’t to say that Scotto and Block don’t like to add a little extra movie flair to the Gymkhana films. For example, look at the time the guys shut down the Golden Gate Bridge for a stunt in “Gymkhana Five” or the homage to O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase in “Gymkhana Seven.”

“We want these to be entertaining so that people connect to it and pass it along,” Scotto added. “Those things are a huge difference between making content that’s viral, versus making content for television. Our viewership is entirely based on you watching it and thinking it’s so good that you want other people to watch it.”

Hoonigan has recently moved onto other platforms as well to follow its target audience. In addition to the recent launch of a Twitch channel, the brand has partnered with Amazon Prime Video for “The Gymkhana Files,” a documentary series shedding light on both the history and rise of Gymkhana, as well as the making of Block and Scotto’s latest Gymkhana film, “Gymkhana Ten.”

“The Gymkhana Files” will run for eight episodes, with two episodes released per week. The last episode, set for release on December 7, will include an early look at “Gymkhana Ten” before it is posted on YouTube three days later.

The new show will be a departure from what the Hoonigan team usually does as it will allow audiences to peek behind the curtain at what goes into conceptualizing and shooting these high-speed stunts.

READ MORE: Marathon Managers: Social Teams Reflect on 18-Inning World Series Game

“We didn’t want to do a reality TV show. It just not what we wanted,” Scotto remarked. “The idea here was to really tell a story of creatively putting stuff together and all the struggles that go with it and not manufacturing fake drama around it. That was always our fear of working with a network. But then when we talked to the folks at Amazon, we realized that they were going to give us a lot of creative freedom and the ability to tell the story the way we wanted to.”

You may be thinking to yourself, “I’m not a car person, so I think I’m out on this.” Scotto urges people to not jump to that conclusion, though, as there are still lessons to be learned from the process shown in the series, particularly for aspiring digital creatives.

“We wanted to do something that would serve our core audience, but at the same time would be extremely entertaining to an outsider. If you’re not into cars, you would still appreciate it from the fact that there’s this struggle of people who are trying to create something,” Scotto stated.

“We’ve never told people what our secret sauce was, like we did here. We’ve shied away from doing behind-the-scenes films and even doing interviews about the process, mainly because we didn’t want anyone to be able to replicate us. We really want it to be in a position where we held a monopoly on that type of film. And, and to this day, we still do. There’s not another automotive viral video that’s even close to the numbers that we’ve created with the Gymkhana series.”

Shooting “The Gymkhana Files” was an intricate operation. A year of filming with five different cars and five different locations later, sports fans, car enthusiasts, and filmmaking nerds alike have something truly unique to check out with this show. As complex and compelling a piece of content as it is, Scotto reminds himself and fans what these films are: commercials and incredible stunts.

“I always joke to people, like, Amazon just made a TV show about people making an advertisement because Gymkhana is basically an annual advertisement for Ken’s sponsors. But at the end of the day it is branded content. It’s kind of cool that we’ve built the show, but they funded a show about us creating advertisements and being able to do fun work in the advertising world.”

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@frntofficesport.com.

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Meet the #Rising25: Adam Johnson of ISM Raceway

Meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager for ISM Raceway. A 2016 Grand Canyon grad, a talent and passion for storytelling landed him in this year’s class.

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The #Rising25 class of 2019, presented by AB InBev, represents some of the brightest young professionals in the sports industry. Over the next several weeks, we’re proud to introduce you to this year’s winners and highlight some of their achievements to date.

Today, meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager of ISM Raceway.

A 2016 graduate of Grand Canyon University, Johnson began working at ISM Raceway (then known as Phoenix International Raceway) as a volunteer tour leader.  It was in his college days that Johnson saw the possibility of building a career in sports. As a college student, he also gained experience with GCU athletics, the Arizona Rattlers, and the Jerry Colangelo Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic.

“Growing up, my discretionary income would go towards sporting events. Now, I make my income from working behind the scenes at sporting events that I’d love to be attending as a hobby,” Johnson says. “As a kid, I consumed a lot of information about my favorite teams and leagues through the television broadcasts and through social media in high school. I loved the idea of being the person who gives today’s kids that information about their team. Being able to share my passion with the next generation made a lot of sense to me.”

Johnson credits much of his professional development to the education he received as a student and employee at GCU. During his time there, the athletic department transitioned to Division I, which provided an ideal learning environment. Johnson then joined ISM Raceway full-time shortly after graduating from GCU.

In 2017 and 2018, the raceway underwent a $178 million dollar renovation. Some racing fans weren’t thrilled with the idea of a track that had basically remained untouched since 1964 now going through a major change. As part of the digital content team, it was the task of Johnson and his cohorts to win fans over with access to the stadium’s new additions.

“I can confidently say that well over 90% of our fans who had doubts are satisfied with the product now thanks in large part to our storytelling,” he says. “Winning over old fans who were skeptical as well as gaining some new fans for the raceway was my career highlight so far.”

Johnson has already held a number of roles in his short career but says that, irrespective of position, authenticity and having a strong character are essential for success. 

“If people are going to talk about you, make sure that it’s something that you would be proud to hear,” he says. “Be yourself but be cognizant that people are always watching, especially when you work in something like social media.”

Johnson advises those looking to shift their sports careers into the fast lane to take networking seriously and not be intimidated to reach out to others.

“You’d be amazed what can happen if you just reach out and ask someone to coffee,” he says. “That goes a long way because everyone has been in that spot before where they don’t know what their next move is. Take that step out of your comfort zone and ask people if you can pick their brain.”

Meet the full class of 2019 here.

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Inside Locked On Podcast Network’s Quest to Provide Fans with Daily Updates

David Locke started a short-form daily podcast to bolster his job security and now he’s built Locked On Podcast Network across the NBA, NFL and, now, MLB.

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Photo Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2011, and all David Locke wanted was job security.

Locke had just become the Utah Jazz’s radio play-by-play man, replacing longtime announcer Rod Hundley. It was a dream gig but one without much stable footing, so Locke decided he needed a side hustle. It ultimately came by way of launching a short-form daily podcast to further connect with fans and cement his place in the position in the organization.

Eight years later, the plan worked out better than he could have imagined. Locke is still with the Jazz and, in 2016, Locked On formally became an entire podcast network built around daily 15-minute podcasts in the NBA and NFL. This week, it launched an MLB component to deliver further content to an audience that averages more than 5 million listeners a month. Locke believes baseball content is a natural extension of the network’s vision.   

READ MORE: Inside CBS Sports’ Innovative Podcast Strategy

“The natural rhythms of baseball match the network in ability to get a team update in 15 minutes,” Locke said. “I’m a big San Francisco Giants fan, but I haven’t watched a game in forever. I don’t have three hours often, but now I listen to Locked On Giants and I know a lot more about the team all of a sudden from 15 minutes a day.

“In that sense, it has a chance to be really successful.”

Locked On Podcast’s MLB network launched with 20 markets, but Locke expects it to soon scale up to all 30 teams. The goal is to someday rival the network’s success with the NBA, whose aggregate weekly listenership was only once surpassed by its NFL content. “There’s a soap opera element to the NBA,” he said. “It’s as popular or more popular in the offseason.”  

Several polls and studies on podcasts have shown the best format podcasts are shorter, like the 15-minute format Locked On Podcast Network has chosen. The research firm IDG Connect found the ideal time for a podcast is 16 minutes in a study finding users want short, digestible content no matter the format.

Likewise, more Americans are listening to podcasts, as a 2018 Edison Research study found an estimated 48 million Americans listen to podcasts weekly. The same study found podcast awareness among Americans had grown from 46 percent of the total population in 2012 to 64 percent in 2018.

As the network grows to encompass more teams and league, Locke says the next step to improve the network’s content will be to continue to search for high-caliber podcast hosts, the best of whom are often writers already on the respective team’s beat. “There’s no real consistency [in hosts],” Locke said. “Two parts have to happen. They have to care passionately about the team and sport and the ability to deliver daily podcasts. It becomes a bit self-selecting in what we’re asking.

“It brings high-level people naturally by what it is.”

Those hosts aren’t being asked to contribute for free, either. Locke was tight-lipped on his revenue model but said the monetization of his network provides the hosts with a modest payment.

“We’ve had really good revenue growth the past two-and-a-half years, and some of our guys have really successful shows,” he said. “We’ve found a way to bring revenue to all our hosts. We’re really proud of that piece. We’re finding mechanisms to allow podcasts that have not been able to monetize, monetize.”

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Locke’s biggest-picture goal is that Locked On PodcastNetwork can open doors for young talent hoping to make a name for themselves in the media world. He worries radio is providing fewer and fewer avenues, something that he hopes Locked On can both compensate for and, ultimately, benefit from.

“There is a real chance to developing the next age of talent, and not just for other people,” he said. “They can develop and then stay with us and hopefully there’s no reason to leave. I hope that’s something we can be for people.”

The next frontier of growth is already on tap. This fall, Locked On Podcast Network will roll out NCAA teams, an arena the network has dabbled in but never fully committed to. With a format that is scalable to any league, Locke hopes to continue filling fans in with his quick-hit podcast format.

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How Access Has Changed The Conversation Around Digital Storytelling

Athletes share more of their lives than ever before, leaving content creators to grapple with how to deepen the message in the stories they tell.

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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes are sharing more of themselves than ever before, putting the onus on sports content producers to develop thoughtful stories to better connect with audiences. A South by Southwest panel on storytelling in sports discussed how to cut through the noise as a documentary filmmaker and sports storyteller.

“Athletes now have their own crews, cameras constantly around documenting their own lives,” said Gotham Chopra, co-founder and chief creative officer of Religion of Sports, who is currently finishing up a documentary on Stephen Curry entitled “Stephen vs. the Game. “For us, we try to cut through the clutter. It’s not about the access, not just a commodity, but what am I trying to say? Why are we doing this? Unless there’s clarity around that, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

When linear television networks ruled the roost, almost any sort of athlete-related access motivated viewers to tune in to see a slice of an unknowable world. Social media opened the floodgates, however. Now that visibility has exploded, and fans can connect directly with athletes, there’s a need to tell bigger, bolder stories.

READ MORE: ‘We Are LAFC’ Shows Off Exclusive Content Opportunity for MLS, ESPN

“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of access,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content. “That’s just not enough anymore. There has to be stakes. The bar has to get higher and higher. We need to stay in our lane and not get stars in our eyes. A big name isn’t enough anymore.”

For ESPN, one of the biggest answers has come by way of longform documentaries, most notably its 30 for 30 series. Today, it ranks as one of the network’s most critically acclaimed imprints. But Geist remembers a time, not too long ago, when stakeholders were wary of viewers making time to watch hour-plus-long programming that sometimes strays off the beaten path.

“It was a risk to commission 30, hour-long docs,” she said. “Now we know they can sit for a long time. Not just for sports stories, but director-driven. Not just moments in time, not just a Super Bowl or big game, but much more layered cultural stories.”

The culmination of those efforts came in 2016 with ESPN’s Academy Award-winning, five-part miniseries on O.J. Simpson, “O.J.: Made In America.”

“The conversation around that was a ‘step back moment,’” Geist said. “People were not just talking about sports, the buzz around the level of discussion.”

That buoyed a new wave of production. Not only does ESPN have 15 to 20 new 30 for 30 projects in the works, according to Geist, but many of them are “big tentpole films,” like an upcoming 10-hour Michael Jordan project.

In addition, Geist and ESPN also have another platform to work through and deploy new content on thanks to the introduction of ESPN+. Though still less than a year old, ESPN+ is already paying dividends by providing new avenues to tell stories. Geist used the example of the docuseries, a medium she was once loath to push due to the headache of scheduling against billion-dollar live sports rights on ESPN. Now, though, they can be uploaded and binged at a viewer’s leisure.

The number of media platforms like ESPN+ and the plethora of other streaming services have posed the question to independent filmmakers like Chopra of how to make compelling content and draw in viewers. He said he’d prefer a small audience deeply engaged in the message of the project rather than a larger, passive one.

“The new platforms have really raised the game of accountability,” he said. “How do I invest? Whether [in subscriptions] or time, you have to earn that. It’s pushed us as creators.”

Ultimately, however, access does matter in the sense of finding subjects willing to offer up more substantial parts of themselves. Dexton Deboree, co-founder of Los York Entertainment, credits the NBA, in particular, for being a forerunner among organizations within sports that push a coherent message and let players tell meaningful stories. That encourages storytellers like Deboree to embrace athletes’ narratives as a microcosm of humanity to spur serious discussions and connect with like-minded people. Last year, Deboree released “Unbanned: The Story of AJ1,” which tracked the cultural influence of Air Jordan shoes.

READ MORE: Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

“If I’m not into basketball, but I realize there’s a connection, suddenly, there might be something to that community,” Deboree said of how a personal story can create new fans. “I don’t know that we’re changing minds. We just strive to stir the pot and get people to talk about stuff [that] maybe they weren’t.”

From Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to today’s athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, athletes have always had the power to spark social dialogue. Chopra recently finished “Shut Up and Dribble” with James, the title taken from a Tweet James received from Fox News personality Laura Ingraham.

“What an amazing time to be alive in this political climate,” Chopra said. “It was conceived from the most popular player in the world literally getting into a social media war with the president of the United States. We went back to the 1950s, and this isn’t new.”

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