SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

Multimedia rivals IMG, Learfield partner to sell tickets

IMG College and Learfield Sports have found that competition can make for strange bedfellows, the latest example of that being the two collegiate multimedia rivals teaming together to sell college tickets.

IMG College has been trying to cultivate the emerging ticket sales and marketing space for the last 15 months and ultimately decided that it could do it better with Learfield’s help.

The new joint venture between the two most dominant collegiate multimedia rights holders will be called IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions and together the two companies, both of which are owned by private-equity funds, will work to expand the current client list of 12 schools.

It’s a list that IMG College has built in the year-plus since it bought Matt DiFebo’s ticket sales business and folded it into its college operation. And there have been some successes along the way, with Duke, Penn State, Syracuse and Tennessee standing out among the new ticketing clients. In these arrangements, IMG College typically sets up an office on the school’s campus and hires anywhere from a handful to 10 sales associates to initiate sales calls. IMG shares revenue from new ticket sales with the school.

“We see this as a great opportunity in a very young space,” said Mark Dyer, senior vice president of business innovations at IMG College. “It makes sense to combine forces to provide what we think will be the best offering to schools.”

Despite the almost two-year push by IMG College and its chief competitor in the space, The Aspire Group, the ticket sales and marketing business remains undeveloped.

IMG College has its dozen schools and The Aspire Group, led by veteran Bernie Mullin, has about 16 college clients for which it does ticket sales and marketing. Both are expanding their business and expect to add several more schools this year, but most schools still handle ticket sales internally.

IMG College, however, now figures to fare better on campuses that have relationships with Learfield because IMG and Learfield are in this together.

Even though IMG College had some success outside of its own network of schools, including winning the business at Penn State, a Learfield school, the joint venture opens many more doors. Combined, IMG College and Learfield do business with about 130 college properties. That will enable the new IMG-Learfield ticketing business to cast a much wider net.

Aspire’s Mullin remains skeptical. After learning of Learfield’s decision to partner with IMG College last week, he emailed his staff with the message, “Business as usual.”

He wouldn’t say if Aspire had talks about doing business with Learfield, but Learfield officials admitted meeting with nearly everyone in the space before partnering with IMG College.

“I might be missing something, but I don’t see how this changes anything,” Mullin said of the IMG-Learfield partnership. “It makes sense for Learfield to have ticketing, certainly, but I don’t see how it makes a lot of difference. We run into them on campuses and we’ve certainly won our share.”

Aspire counts Rutgers, Maryland, Memphis, Louisiana Tech, Western Michigan and the NCAA among its college clients.
Mullin concedes that Learfield or IMG College might have an advantage when they go after ticket business on a campus where one or the other already owns the multimedia rights. But Mullin sees very little synergy between the sponsorship side and the ticketing side, so he’s skeptical of how much that will come into play when schools seek a ticketing partner.

Learfield, a company with 40 years’ worth of relationships in the college space as a marketer and broadcaster, has deep ties at 50 schools, such as Alabama, Oklahoma, Missouri and North Carolina. IMG College, likewise, does business with close to 80 schools, including Kansas, Ohio State and Kentucky, three of the four schools in the Final Four.

“Combined, we can go to market in a bigger way,” said Roger Gardner, vice chairman at Learfield. “What we hear from our university partners is that they have needs (in ticketing) and that translates into opportunity for additional service, revenue and all of the other benefits that go with it.”

Neither IMG College nor Learfield have plans to do more joint business. They’ve occasionally worked together to sell advertising and sponsorship, and their properties at Clemson, South Carolina, Miami and Alabama are joint ventures, but that’s all that’s in the works for now.

Learfield, which recently sold a majority interest to Shamrock Capital, and IMG College are currently competitors for the multimedia rights at Illinois.

“That’s not the game plan right now,” Gardner said of future joint ventures. “If there’s something that makes sense, it’d be silly not to think about it, but there’s nothing on the drawing board.”

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