SBJ/June 16-22, 2014/Colleges

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  • LRG purchase takes Learfield into licensing

    As Learfield Sports has broadened the services it offers to its school clients, the most obvious missing piece was licensing. That won’t be the case anymore.

    Learfield is announcing this week that it has acquired Licensing Resource Group, a licensing agency that represents more than 200 colleges from offices in North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Iowa and Rhode Island.

    No terms were available on the deal, but LRG will continue to operate under its old name. Greg Brown, Learfield’s president CEO, said that LRG has been around since 1991 and developed a strong reputation, so he didn’t see a reason for LRG to adopt the Learfield name.

    “We’re going to be able to provide additional resources and industry connections to fuel LRG’s growth,” Brown said.

    The acquisition is another sign of Learfield’s growth since it was bought by Providence Equity Partners in September 2013.

    Just months later, in February, Learfield struck a major deal when it acquired Nelligan Sports Marketing and its multimedia rights at 41 schools. That gave Learfield the marketing rights to 92 schools in all.

    Learfield, by that time, worked with schools on marketing and media, concessions, ticket sales and digital rights, but it didn’t have a competency in licensing, a space that its competitor, IMG College, dominates through its ownership of Collegiate Licensing Co.

    The purchase of LRG now puts Learfield in the licensing space with 226 schools, and that doesn’t include hundreds of high schools where LRG has licensing rights. LRG’s clients include Baylor, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas State, Mississippi State and North Carolina State (see chart).

    CLC remains the dominant player in college licensing with most of the top brand names, but LRG has steadily built a sizable client base with a mix of schools from the major Division I conferences and a large number of smaller schools.

    “We’ve worked hard to build valuable relationships in the college marketplace, and Learfield will help us grow our capabilities,” said Lewis Hardy, LRG’s president and CEO. Hardy was one of three founders in 1991 along with Gene Wandling and the late Richard Rademaker.

    Hardy will stay on to oversee LRG, and will report to Learfield’s COO, Marc Jenkins. Wandling, LRG’s chief financial officer, will remain as well.

    Learfield and LRG closed the deal last week after more than two months of negotiations. Brown and Hardy began quietly sharing the news with athletic directors like Baylor’s Ian McCaw and Kansas State’s John Currie last week at the NACDA convention in Orlando. NACDA is the trade association that represents ADs.

    Brown and Hardy, sitting in a suite at the Orlando Marriott, laughed as they thought about their first conversation about a deal nearly five years ago. Those talks were shelved when LRG struck a strategic partnership with ISP Sports in 2010. But ISP was bought by IMG College later that year and the partnership disintegrated.

    Brown and Roger Gardner, Learfield executive vice president, reignited talks of an acquisition last April at the Final Four over breakfast in Dallas. Negotiations sped forward from there.

    “Back then, we didn’t have the resources,” Brown said of those initial talks five years ago. But Providence has pumped resources into Learfield that give it the wherewithal to close these types of deals now.

    Hardy said that Learfield is acquiring a company that has produced five straight years of revenue growth and anticipates a sixth. That growth has come partially from new clients, and partially from increased sales of licensed merchandise.

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