New CBO: Why Detroit Pistons extended tryout invite to hip-hop star J. Cole

Mike Zavodsky
New Detroit Pistons chief business officer Mike Zavodsky started with the franchise in June. Overseeing marketing, sales and creative operations, Zavodsky joins the Pistons after a stint as an executive at entertainment agency Roc Nation.
Pistons Photo
by Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

The Detroit Pistons are serious.

No, really.

Hip-hop star J. Cole is more than welcome to tryout for the NBA squad, an invitation that was extended last week and created buzz around the Pistons, one of eight teams not playing in the Orlando bubble to determine seeding for the postseason.

The franchise’s social media channels reached out to J. Cole, who stars in a recent Puma commercial  which indicates he’s working in the gym with the goal of getting an NBA tryout.

No word yet if J. Cole will accept the invitation, which was hatched when Pistons senior vice president of marketing Alicia Jeffreys noticed the item (via TMZ) that hip-hop OG Master P, who suited up for the Toronto Raptors during 1999 preseason, is taking J. Cole seriously.

What started as a simple marketing attempt paid off with social media buzz and a mention on ESPN’s daily NBA program, “The Jump.”

It’s an example of the perspective chief business officer Mike Zavodsky, who was hired in June to oversee sales, marketing and creative operations, brings to the Pistons.

He was lured from entertainment agency Roc Nation, where he served as an executive in charge of sports and event sales. The new position reports to Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem. Prior to his stint with Roc Nation, Zavodsky cut his teeth with the Nets organization, where he spent 14 years.

Zavodsky recently spoke with Pistons.com and in just under 20 minutes, he discussed J. Cole, the attractiveness of the Pistons brand and his plans for the new position.

(Answers have been edited for clarity and length)

Pistons.com: What was the goal of the J. Cole interaction?  

Zavodsky: Obviously he's got a background in basketball (he tried out for St. John’s (N.Y.) University after a solid prep career). By utilizing social media, we saw that as an opportunity to put us in a little bit of a different conversation than I think the team has traditionally.

Pistons.com: What’s the benefit of being part of the conversation now?

Zavodsky: The NBA is a lifestyle brand. It's not just about basketball for the league. People follow it for the fashion, people follow it for the music associations. There's a variety of different reasons that people follow it in addition to just the game. It's a year-round platform that the league has created. Although it's our offseason, that doesn't mean the conversation for us needs to stop. We can be a part of a variety of different things and utilize the year-round platform that the league offers to insert ourselves and be relevant.

Pistons.com: You left Roc Nation recently. J. Cole is a client of the agency, right?

Zavodsky: Yeah, he's part of the family, but there was no connection between the two, to be completely honest. It was just something that presented itself. In fact, I never had the opportunity to connect during my time there.

Pistons.com: What attracted you to the Pistons organization?

Zavodsky: There's obviously a great tradition here. When I was growing up, I followed the Pistons. The opportunity to come to a major market with the opportunity for a growth trajectory was something that was very exciting to me. To be quite honest, in my career, I didn't know if I'd have a second opportunity to do something like that. Look at what went on with the Nets franchise over the last 15 years. The franchise moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn fueled growth, became a real galvanizing force and epicenter of the borough. The Pistons have been that for a long time, but now are doing it downtown. That drew me to it.

Pistons.com: The move to Brooklyn created buzz. Brooklyn has a brand. There hasn’t been a lot of success on the floor, but there's a scene, a vibe. From Barclays Center fans chanting “Brooklyn” to Jay-Z and Beyonce’ seated courtside to cool merchandise, there is buzz. How did that come about?

Zavodsky: We wanted to create a lifestyle brand that fans could associate with. It wasn't necessarily dependent upon how many wins you had or how many losses you had. We were about the community. We were about fashion. We were about music. We were about art. Being a basketball team, we were obviously about basketball. We were about everything that the community had to offer. Going to a Nets game became an experience. Some people went for the food because they liked our food program where we went with all local vendors instead of your traditional fare. Some people liked the music, other people just liked the overall game entertainment experience that we provided. We tried to give enough reasons for people to want to be associated with us and obviously basketball is the central part of that.

Pistons.com: You mentioned music, you mentioned fashion, you mentioned food. You mentioned the move from a suburban area to a new downtown neighborhood. Very comparable to recent Pistons history with the recent move from Auburn Hills to downtown Detroit. Was that also part of the attraction?

Zavodsky: I've been diving into the history of the city, both past and present, what it has to offer. I think there's so much that we can utilize as a brand to galvanize the city. That was definitely one of the most exciting parts of the opportunity.

Pistons.com: I'm assuming with your age (36) you followed the Going To Work Pistons and not the Bad Boys?

Zavodsky: The Isiah-Joe D. days were at the beginning of when I was starting to follow basketball. The Rip, Chauncey and Ben days were probably when I was at the pinnacle of following. I remember the ruggedness of the team and obviously how hard they played and it wasn't ever about one person. It was about the collective group. That was my takeaway from those teams. It’s similar to what I'm learning about the city. It's about the power of everybody together. Not just one person.

Pistons.com: You have spoken quite a bit about marketing, but isn’t winning the best marketing?

Zavodsky: The beer is colder, the hotdogs taste better when you’re winning. But it needs to be about more than that. You want to build connectivity with your fanbase for all the right reasons and stay rooted with what you stand for. I think what we do in the community is paramount to that. We're a central part of this community. Winning is great and I hope we win a couple rings while I'm here. But it needs to be about more than just the wins. It needs to be about how is the team rooted in the community and making it a better place.

Pistons.com: What strengths do you bring to your position with the Pistons?

Zavodsky: That’s probably the same answer as to why they won those championships. I don't claim to be the smartest guy, but I work tirelessly. I think bringing that tireless work ethic to the table where we can try to innovate and create and be disruptive and try as many new things as possible will help propel us.

Pistons.com: In asking around, apparently your connections to the business world have made a difference?

Zavodsky: I've always made sure I was focused on the relationships that I have with people and what my reputation is in the marketplace. When you look at the NBA, it's a national property. I don't care what your geographic location is. You have the ability to tell stories and sell nationally. I think what the New York area afforded me was the opportunity to build that Rolodex of contacts. With it being an epicenter of the business world, I have to utilize that as we build things here.

Pistons.com: How is success defined?

Zavodsky: It’s making sure that this is an environment and a place that everybody feels welcome and wants to be part of on a day-to-day basis. There's a variety of things that go into that, but this should be a fun place, a welcoming place, an inclusive place, and a collaborative place where people can come in and work hard, but enjoy what they do. Obviously we also must create sustainable growth, look at where the team is headed and build to get to the point that we want to get to.

Pistons.com: Anything you would like Pistons fans to know about you?

Zavodsky: I'm a big dog person, so my girlfriend and I have two dogs. That’s where we spend most of our time when we’re not at the office. I also like to get down to Florida to visit my folks whenever I can to spend quality time with them.

Platinum Equity intern Khalil Dawsey contributed.

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