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Published March 12, 2007
Sarah Nettinga found her first and, to date, only sports gig in the pages of Variety.
She no longer recalls the specifics of the want ad, other than that it described a sports property seeking someone based in Los Angeles to handle promotion of its broadcasts. Nettinga had bigger plans.
"I kind of changed that and came up with something better," Nettinga said, chuckling as she flashes back to a career change that struck her friends as unlikely at the time. Nettinga was working as a consultant in the international TV division of Sony Pictures, charged with bringing together facets of production and marketing. Prior to that, she'd played a similar role at Warner Bros. for seven years.
Friends and colleagues told her a move to NASCAR would put a bullet in the career she was building in entertainment. "Never to be heard from again," she said.
Nettinga interviewed with Paul Brooks, the Brian France consigliere who was dispatched to Los Angeles to open a broadcasting office after NASCAR signed its blockbuster rights deal with Fox. She pitched him on the idea that the sport needed more than broadcast promotion, suggesting a broader approach that included development of original television programming and films, greater inclusion of celebrities to increase visibility, and an increased emphasis on placement in films and on TV series.
The overarching goal: to plunge NASCAR headlong into mainstream public consciousness, using pop culture as the engine.
"Usually, you come in with a big idea, and they give you one or two little pieces of it that they'll let you do," said Nettinga, who started with the title of manager, entertainment promotion, and grew her role into managing director, film, television and entertainment. "Paul and Brian saw the whole thing and said, ?Great. Go do it.' And we were off."
In the last two years, NASCAR has tied to three of the more commercially successful sports-themed films ever released: "Herbie Fully Loaded" ($141 million worldwide box office gross since its release in June 2005), "Cars" ($455 million) and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" ($158 million worldwide gross through October 2006 and another $44 million in U.S. video rentals since December). Those followed Nettinga's first film foray at NASCAR, an IMAX film that finished 2003 as the highest-grossing original IMAX movie ever.
This season, NASCAR also formed its deepest connection ever to a recording artist, signing Kelly Clarkson to perform at the Daytona 500 and its season-ending awards banquet, appear in a "How bad have you got it?" promotional spot and serve as spokeswoman for the sanctioning body's flagship charity push, NASCAR Day.
On television, Nettinga has helped put NASCAR in places you wouldn't expect to find it, placed into the story lines of "The West Wing" and "Days of Our Lives," among other shows. Stock car racing has shown up on Animal Planet, MTV, A&E, E! and the Biography Channel.
Nettinga's background gives NASCAR an internal voice that is fluent in the language of filmmakers and television producers.
"When you have people who are incredibly creative on one side, and then on the sports side you have people who are all about process and PowerPoints, those are people who aren't always going to understand each other," Nettinga said. "You need a way for the creatives to be able to talk to the more structured, business people and find a way to make it all work."
Typically, that role lands with Nettinga. She says she prepped for it during her time working on international projects with Warner Bros., including an extreme example when the studio was assembling a co-production for distribution in Canada, France and Lithuania.
"The French were very different from the Canadians, and the Lithuanians were just learning," Nettinga said. "There was a lot of bridging the gap that needed to be done. At NASCAR, it was very similar. Entertainment and sports people speak different languages."
— Bill King