SBJ/February 27 - March 5, 2006/This Weeks News

Little public profile, big sale price: $90M

Winnercomm, a Tulsa, Okla.-based production firm that touts itself as “the biggest name in sports you’ve never heard of,” has agreed to be sold to a group of private investors for $90 million, said sources familiar with the transaction.

Winnercomm has a strong presence in TV
production for bull riding and horse racing.
The deal was scheduled to be closed last Friday.

Parallel Investment Partners from Dallas and Harbert Management of Birmingham, Ala., will assume majority ownership of the company, with Winnercomm CEO Jim Wilburn and his brother John retaining a minority but “significant” stake, Jim Wilburn said. They collectively owned 82 percent of the company before the sale.

Winnercomm is ESPN’s largest outside source of programming and produces more than 1,500 hours of sports television each year, more than any of the broadcast networks. It had sales of more than $80 million last year and is expected to approach $100 million this year, Wilburn said.

He would not comment on any financial elements of the sale, but said a capital infusion would mean major new opportunities for the company, which he founded in 1981 to produce quarter-horse races for local television.

“We’re going to be much more
aggressive as it relates to
acquisitions of smaller companies.”

Jim Wilburn
Winnercomm CEO
“It means accelerated growth,” he said. “For the last 25 years and especially the last 10 years, all our growth has been organic. We’ve hired people and serviced areas as the demand dictated. Now, we’re going to be much more aggressive as it relates to acquisitions of smaller companies. And we’ll probably be more willing to create events that might have a small risk factor.”

Also included is the Skycam business, which Wilburn and his brother acquired separately from Winnercomm in the summer of 2004 but operated as part of the company.

Winnercomm has been close to being acquired twice before, including a year ago by an investment group working with former ESPN president and Outdoor Life Network founder Roger Werner. The deals fell apart at the last minute, though, primarily over terms of Wilburn’s future employment with the company.

Under this agreement, the new ownership group will be “transparent,” according to Wilburn, and the current management team will stay in place, including chief financial officer John Baker and chief operating officer Marc Kidd.

Wilburn will continue to run it as he has for 2 1/2 decades, with a style that outsiders hail as tenacious, opportunistic and with integrity.

“Opening your own company and building it over 20 years amidst the downturns and the challenges takes a true warrior,” said Charlie Besser, CEO of the Chicago-based production and marketing firm Intersport. “Jim, with [brother] John’s help, has built a model independent production company.”

The company handles all production for ESPN Outdoors and the corresponding Web site. It’s also done television production for Major League Soccer since the league’s inception, and has a strong presence in horse racing, bass fishing, bull riding and documentaries, having produced 40 episodes of ESPN’s “SportsCentury” series.

The fastest-growing division of the company is Web production, handling the sites for the NTRA, Breeders’ Cup, LPGA, U.S. Figure Skating Association, Bassmasters, ESPN.com’s horse racing and rodeo areas, and several corporate clients.

Winnercomm also launched a sales division in 2004 to specialize in property representation, handling the PBA Tour, among others, and hired a team that included former Host Communications President Kidd and former top sales executives from ESPN, ABC Radio and IMG.

Courting properties ignored by the mainstream media but popular in the heartland, Winnercomm recently signed sales or production relationships with the American Power Sports Association, which sanctions all-terrain-vehicle racing, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s “Xtreme Bulls” series. It also lists the Triple Crown of Polo and the World Cup of Softball among its new clients.

At the core of the company’s culture are Wilburn’s values and his down-home, middle-America persona. An almost evangelical advocate for the city of Tulsa, Wilburn says the company will never leave the city and its nearly 200 employees there, a key provision of the sale.

He prides himself on spending almost nothing — less than $25,000 a year — on legal fees because the company uses letter agreements instead of formal contracts.

“People can’t believe it,” he said. “We do a multimillion-dollar deal and all they get is a four-page letter confirming our agreement.”

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