Jim Host’s pitch for the NCAA to start a corporate sponsorship program was greeted with an enthusiastic response from the executive director at the time, Walter Byers.
“Over my dead body!” Byers exclaimed.
It was 1981, and while corporate partners were not new to sports, they were still foreign to intercollegiate athletics. The NCAA’s ultra-conservative leader wouldn’t hear of it, and that was the end to a very brief conversation.
Host, though, was a man who didn’t take no for an answer. He started his business in 1972 as a one-man operation over a barber shop in Lexington, Ky., with $107 to his name, so he wasn’t easily deterred.
Through Host’s persistence, Byers finally agreed to take on corporate partners two years later. By 1985, Gillette was on board for $500,000 a year. Valvoline and Pizza Hut followed, and by 1990, Host’s business, Host Communications, had the corporate platform humming.
It proved to be Host’s greatest sales job in a career marked by innovation, smarts and sheer determination. Not only did he create the NCAA’s first sponsorship program, Host went on in the 1980s and ’90s to establish the multimedia rights model that now generates millions annually for universities across the country.
He essentially founded college sports marketing, both at the national level and the university level, and in the process became one of the most influential figures in collegiate sports.
“The man is a force of nature,” said Mark Dyer, a former Host Communications employee and now senior vice president at IMG. “He can will something to happen.”
‘Never forgot where he came from’
Host’s success is rooted both in sports and in his native Kentucky. He was a basketball team student manager and worked part time at the YMCA in his hometown of Ashland, Ky. But baseball was his sport, and he developed a reputation as an intimidating pitcher because of his velocity and size, at 6-foot-3.
He had an opportunity to turn pro out of high school for $25,000, but his father wouldn’t let him bypass a college scholarship. Those years at UK and the importance his parents placed on college became the foundation of his commitment and passion for college athletics.
“You always hear him give a great deal of credit to his roots,” said Tim Kelly, publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader and a Host friend also originally from Ashland. “He’s definitely a guy who never forgot where he came from.”
After a short stint in government as Kentucky’s commissioner of public information in the late 1960s, Host ran for lieutenant governor in 1971 but lost. Loaded with debt from the campaign and just $107 in his pocket, Host opened Jim Host & Associates, a one-man shop that became Host Communications a few years later.
Known for doing local radio play-by-play, Host picked up the non-exclusive rights for UK radio in the 1970s, when several different rights holders carried the games. Host eventually gained the exclusive rights and grew the network into one of the most prodigious around.
The power of Kentucky basketball and Host’s sales acumen soon proved to be an unstoppable pair. The UK network of radio stations that carried the games grew to 117, including the 50,000-watt AM giants in Louisville and Cincinnati that could be heard throughout much of the eastern United States. Along the way, he bought a publishing company and began printing programs for UK football and basketball games, selling advertising across both the programs and the radio broadcasts.
As his business with Kentucky evolved in the late 1980s, Host saw the opportunity for more at the university level. During those days, coaches handled their own endorsement deals, a practice that typically led to category conflicts with a school’s athletic department and all kinds of headaches.
That was the case when Kentucky football coach Jerry Claiborne signed a deal with Pepsi that included sideline rights, even though Coca-Cola was a school sponsor and had stadium pouring rights.
“I was sitting at a UK football game with the largest Coke distributor in the state, and he noticed that there were Pepsi cups on the bench,” Host said. “He asked, ‘Why should Coke be here when our competitors are on the bench.’ It was a good point. I went back to the university for a new agreement and got all of the coaches shows and third-tier TV in our rights. We packaged it all together.”
Another critical development led to bundling all of those media and marketing rights together.
In 1989, Kentucky was in the market for a basketball coach to lead a program that had been sullied by NCAA infractions. C.M. Newton, UK’s athletic director, thought he could lure New York Knicks coach Rick Pitino to the Bluegrass State, but salary was going to be a problem.
Newton turned to Host for help. The only way for the Wildcats to get Pitino was for Host to boost the salary with additional income on top of what the school could pay in base salary.
“Back then, coaches were doing their own radio and TV shows, and that was pretty much the case across all colleges,” said Newton, now an adviser to the Southeastern Conference. “By putting together all of it — radio, TV, endorsements, speaking engagements — we were able to put together a total financial package to hire the coach of the New York Knicks in a college setting.
“We would never have been able to hire Pitino without Jim’s help.”
In a hire that revived Kentucky basketball, Host guaranteed Pitino $650,000 in outside income, a pretty stout number for 1989.
Host laughs when he thinks about that deal now. He had no idea if he could actually make that much or more.
“I had no clue, but C.M. asked me to dig down, and I did,” Host said.
“It was a real risk on Jim’s part,” Newton said. “He wouldn’t have done that deal anywhere else, but his blood runs blue for Kentucky. It turned out to be a pretty good business model.”
As news of Kentucky’s bundled-rights package spread, other schools sought similar deals, or what Host called “the full-meal deal” of local TV, radio, publishing, sponsorship, signage and coaches’ endorsements, the kind of rights deals that are typically sold today. Soon, Host Communications was rolling with multimedia rights to more than 20 schools, including college giants like Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and LSU. The company’s annual revenue exceeded $140 million, and Host’s connections from the campuses to the NCAA’s headquarters made him one of the most influential figures in college athletics.
Best of all, Host Communications faced virtually no competition. That is, until 1997, when Host went to Missouri’s athletic director at the time, Joe Castiglione, and put a hefty offer on the table for a full-meal deal.
The Tigers were to Clyde Lear’s Learfield Sports what the Wildcats were to Host. Lear’s Missouri-based business had been handling University of Missouri radio rights since the early 1970s, but Host’s bid threatened Lear’s 25-year association with his alma mater.
“When we went in to renew in 1997, Joe Castiglione said, ‘Clyde, a big company has come in and they’re offering us a full-meal deal.’ Well, I didn’t know what a full-meal deal was,” Lear said. “It was radio, programs, signage, sponsorship, everything, for a huge rights fee. You can imagine what I thought. I was panicking. I saw our whole business going down the drain.”
Lear found a partner in Ben Sutton, whose ISP Sports was handling Wake Forest printing and programs. The two worked out a joint bid to keep Missouri’s rights, but their businesses were forever changed. Learfield and ISP were in the multimedia rights business, and an industry was taking shape.
“I did not see the future like Host did,” Lear said. “I hate to say that, but it’s a real compliment to Jim. He turned over that rock and then we had to figure it out pretty quickly. He forced me into a business that we didn’t envision. I owe a lot to him for that.”
Changed the relationship
In the late 1990s, Host went through a series of investors. The multimedia rights business was good for the universities, but it was a capital-sucking model. A merger with Creative Sports in the 1990s lasted less than a year. Another investor, GE Capital, came and went.
Bull Run Corp., the parent company of UK’s flagship TV station, WKYT-TV, ultimately bought a majority stake in Host Communications. Host stayed in charge until 2003, when he retired. IMG bought Host Communications in 2007 and rebranded it IMG College to go with its acquisition of Collegiate Licensing Co.
Host’s imprint is so embedded, though, that people throughout the industry still routinely refer to IMG College’s university business as Host Communications.
“Jim’s vision of integrating marketing rights, radio, signage, sponsorship, TV into one package, well, he was a pioneer,” said NCAA executive vice president and longtime Host friend Tom Jernstedt. “He really helped … institutions understand how marketing could be integrated in a very professional but limited way that was consistent with the values of higher education.”
Host forever changed the relationship between sports and business in the conservative world of university presidents and athletic directors. It was common for them to turn to Host whenever they had to make a business decision, whether it was hiring a coach or negotiating a new media deal. No one was more connected, no one was more indispensable.
“His impact was absolutely seminal to the remarkable success and growth we’ve seen in college athletics,” said Rob Temple, an ESPN vice president and a former Host Communications employee who helped revise the NCAA’s corporate champions and corporate partners program a decade ago. “He really was the Daniel Boone of college sports.”