SBJ/Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2013/Colleges

IMG Learfield adds Florida to ticket-sales list

Florida’s home football games conjure images of a packed stadium with close to 90,000 fans doing the Gators’ trademark “Two bits” cheer.

But even the most elite football programs are finding that they can use an assist when it comes to selling tickets.

Florida joins other big-time college football programs that now outsource ticket sales.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The Gators, despite averaging 87,597 fans in 2012, are the most recent school to outsource their ticket sales, signing a multiyear agreement with IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions for the start of the 2013 season. Schools typically pay IMG Learfield a percentage of new tickets sold, plus renewals.

In addition to Florida, IMG Learfield also has added South Carolina, Air Force and Tulsa over the summer, bringing the business’s client list to 26 schools. UNLV, one of the first clients in 2011, also signed an extension for two more years.

Each of these deals is unique to the school. One agreement might be for group sales or corporate sales only, while others are more inclusive and include all types of season and single-game sales.

One thing they have in common is outbound sales, something that was relatively foreign to athletic departments just a few years ago until the Atlanta-based Aspire Group struck a partnership with Georgia Tech in 2009 and IMG College started its ticketing division in 2011. They’ve been going head-to-head ever since.

Scott Carr, a senior associate athletic director at Auburn, an IMG Learfield client, predicts that within five years just about every school in the big five conferences will have some form of ticket operation that makes outbound sales calls. Some schools, such as California, Florida State and Oklahoma State, use an in-house model for outbound sales, while others outsource to a third party like IMG Learfield or Aspire.

“Deals like the one we have with IMG Learfield will be much more the norm as we move forward,” Carr said. “There’s an aspect of customer service that comes with it that we’ve got to have.”

For IMG College, the ticketing business, a joint venture with Learfield Sports, is one of several new businesses that make up the business ventures unit led by Mark Dyer. The business ventures division doesn’t come close to generating the same revenue as IMG College’s primary business — multimedia rights. But it is growing at a rate that has Dyer bullish on its ability to contribute to the bottom line.

The new lines of business now make up 10 percent of IMG College’s total revenue and it’s accelerating, Dyer said.

IMG Learfield Ticketing generated $54 million in total ticket sales and renewals in 2012, and projects to hit $65 million in 2013. Of that, $15 million was related to new tickets in 2012, which will double to $30 million in 2013.

“Of course, you should see dramatic increases when you start from scratch,” Dyer said, “but it really is growing at an explosive rate. There’s interest when you’re talking about selling and raising revenue in athletics.”

IMG College’s parent company, IMG, is currently for sale and that could lead to some changes down the road, but for now, business ventures consists of ticketing, temporary seat rentals and fundraising, all service-oriented businesses designed to make IMG College a one-stop outsource shop for athletic departments.

Outsourcing department functions became the trend through the 1990s and 2000s as more and more schools signed multimedia rights agreements to outsource their marketing and media rights. Now every school in the big five conferences, except for Michigan State, outsources its multimedia rights.

These new businesses could follow that same trend. Seating Solutions, a business that rents cushioned seats to ticket holders, has enjoyed similar growth. It counts Arkansas, Penn State, UCLA/Rose Bowl, Southern California, Washington, SMU and UNC-Charlotte among its new seating customers.

With 90 university partners representing more than 500,000 college football stadium seats across the country, the seating business now has the scale to begin selling national advertising on the seatbacks, Dyer said. Some advertising has been sold piecemeal in the past, but not nationally.

“This is going to make a very effective national package,” Dyer said of new inventory that likely will be sold out of IMG College’s national sales office in New York, spearheaded by Andrew Judelson.

The ticketing and seat rental businesses were started via acquisition, while the fundraising arm began earlier this year with the hiring of former Georgia AD Damon Evans. Dyer and Evans have been calling on ADs this summer, and Dyer believes there will be a demand for the fundraising help, even though they’re still seeking their first client.

Often, schools don’t have the wherewithal to hire large sales staffs and pay commissions. The third party typically is embedded in the athletic department and acts on behalf of the school.

“What you’re looking for is a certain expertise and broad coverage of sales that athletic departments typically don’t have,” said Chris Ferris, Pitt’s associate AD for external relations. “It’s not just cold calling. It’s more strategic than that. They’re reaching out to the corporate community and they’re finding people who used to buy tickets and for whatever reason haven’t purchased in a few years.”

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