Champions: Bill Battle, licensing icon
This was the fall of 1981, long before Battle wore that distinguished head of white hair and was known as the Southern gentleman whose company built the $4.3 billion collegiate licensing industry.
Back then, in fact, Battle was known as a former football player for Bear Bryant at Alabama and a fired football coach at Tennessee who shocked his peers by walking away from the game to run a window company in Selma, Ala. His wins came in the form of deals like the $42 million project to install thermal windows in a Saudi Arabian building.
Collegiate licensing? Such a concept was so foreign in 1981 that Battle couldn’t find anyone at the University of Alabama who knew what licensing was. Battle, himself, wasn’t sure.
“I must have gone to six or seven offices that day asking where the licensing department was,” Battle said. “They said, ‘Licensing for what?’ Nobody knew what I was talking about.”
Battle’s concept for a collegiate licensing business became the basis for a company that redefined what it meant to make hats, T-shirts and other items with college marks. He didn’t just build a company; he forged an industry that has become an important revenue source for athletic departments across the country and made the licensing of marks easier for manufacturers.
Battle’s Collegiate Licensing Co. eventually represented more than 200 schools, bowl games, conferences and other college entities, creating a valuable revenue stream while cleaning up a rogue business that turned out unsavory products like condoms and beer with unofficial school marks.
For larger schools like Alabama, licensing now brings in $7 million to $8 million annually, more in years when the Crimson Tide wins championships, all from the model that Battle put in place with CLC. He sold the company to IMG in 2007 for more than $100 million.
But 30 years ago, Battle’s vision of consolidating school licensing rights into a model that resembled the NFL’s had not even come into focus. He certainly had no idea how the events of the next year would not only change his life, but also give shape to a fledgling industry.
No, on this day, he just wanted to find someone at Alabama who had a clue what he was talking about.
STARTS WITH THE BEAR
Every quarter, Battle delivered the financial report for the Decatur Iron and Steel Co. — otherwise known as DISCO — to the board of directors at its Selma headquarters. But on a particular January day in 1981, Battle, the company’s president, couldn’t stay focused. All he could think about was his old coach, Bear Bryant.
Bryant was a mostly ceremonial member of DISCO’s board and he attended (to most everyone’s surprise) just about all of the board meetings. Battle, who played for the legendary coach 20 years earlier, made it his routine to drive over to the Selma Holiday Inn, pick up Bryant, and take him to the office for the board meetings.
During the drive on this chilly morning, though, Bryant nonchalantly dropped some news on his former player that would forever alter the course of Battle’s life.
|Bill Battle’s early college contacts came from his days as an Alabama football player.
“He said those guys up in New York just weren’t doing anything for him,” Battle said. “Shoot, I didn’t even know that he had an agent.”
As a distracted Battle delivered his quarterly report, he kept thinking about how he could represent Bryant, who was nine victories away from breaking the all-time wins record.
“I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Battle said. “To me, he was the most well-known coach in the country, the greatest figure in college athletics. All I could think about was, ‘Holy cow, he’s about to change agents.’”
So after the meeting, Battle steadied himself and said, “Coach, I don’t know that much about licensing, and I don’t know that much about being an agent, but I know you and I’ll make sure we do it the way you want to do it.”
“In that old, gravely voice, Coach Bryant said, ‘Aw, I ain’t got nothing to sell. The best in the business has been trying to sell me for years. All I want is somebody to take all these requests for speaking engagements and tell them I can’t come.’”
Battle tells the story with a raucous laugh that just about busts a gut. The most famous and revered coach in college football was going to be represented by the president of a window company.
As Bryant neared the wins record the following season, requests began to flow in for licensing rights to the Bear’s image and likeness. Manufacturers wanted to make hats, T-shirts — anything they could produce that had Bryant’s likeness on it. One company made bronze-colored busts of the Bear, one of which sits in the CLC offices in Atlanta today.
“Things picked up dramatically,” Battle said. “That’s when it got fun. And what happened as more people wanted the license for Coach Bryant? They wanted to use Alabama’s logos too.”
Finding the gatekeeper for Alabama’s marks, however, presented a problem. The Crimson Tide, like most schools 30 years ago, didn’t have a licensing program.
Finally, after walking the halls and fruitlessly knocking on doors inside the Rose Administration Building that day on the Tuscaloosa campus, Battle came across a familiar face in the school’s purchasing office.
Battle had known Finus Gaston because of their mutual connection to Alabama football — Battle as a player for Bryant’s first national championship team, in 1961, and Gaston as a team manager years later. Gaston’s father also had been the sports information director at Alabama when Battle was a player.
Maybe Gaston would know the answer to Battle’s licensing question. What Battle didn’t know when he entered the office is that Gaston had been talking to other administrators on SEC campuses about just such a program. They just weren’t sure how to get it going. How could these colleges sell licenses, manage the licensees, make sure they get paid, and enforce the program against rogue T-shirt makers who were pumping product out of their basements?
In walked Bill Battle.
“As soon as we started talking about a licensing program, we knew there was a lot of synergy there with Coach Bryant and Alabama,” said Gaston, now the athletic department’s chief financial officer. “The more we talked, the more sense it made. It was just logical for everything to come together right there.”
That conversation late in 1981 set the table for Alabama to become Battle’s first collegiate client in what was then Golden Eagle Enterprises, the company that became CLC in 1984. Golden Eagle, a company that made hickory-shafted mallet putters and Jack Nicklaus-licensed eyewear, was owned by the same man, Larry Striplin, who owned DISCO — and it had just enough of a licensing flavor to serve as the agency for that college business that Battle was starting to bring in.
Think it was strange for a window company president to serve as Bear Bryant’s agent? How about a putter and eyewear company representing the University of Alabama’s licensing?
But this is how it all started.
“After we talked for a while, Bill said he wanted to submit a licensing proposal to the university,” Gaston said. “We just didn’t know who you’d submit it to.”
After Battle secured Alabama with approval from the school’s president, Mississippi soon jumped on board. Within a few years, seven of the ACC’s eight schools at the time became clients, too.
Wake Forest was one of those first ACC clients. Ben Sutton, now IMG College’s president, was the Deacons’ licensing director in the 1980s.
“Bill used to say that ‘We’ve got everybody from Alabama to Wake Forest,’” Sutton said. “I took it to mean alphabetical. … Bill blazed the path onto campus for a lot of businesses. We all owe him a great debt for that.”
A BUSINESS ALLY
Battle’s path into the ACC was cleared by Clemson’s athletic director at the time, Bill McLellan, who proved to be an important ally. The Tigers won the national football championship in 1981, and products with Tiger paws started showing up everywhere in the following months. Clemson couldn’t regulate it.
McLellan had seen one of Battle’s licensing proposals, similar to what he had sent to Alabama, and arranged for Battle to meet with all of the ACC’s athletic directors, which led to discussions with the schools’ business chiefs. Battle liked to pitch to the vice presidents in charge of business because they typically oversaw the bookstores.
With McLellan opening the door, Battle signed nearly all of the conference’s schools. Virginia was the lone ACC school that didn’t sign — a notable exception, because a rival was beginning to emerge. Steve Crossland, a former bookstore manager at the University of Southern California, was attempting to corral some schools of his own, and Virginia represented a big early win. Battle and Crossland eventually decided to join forces, and when they did, CLC’s list of schools grew to 25. Crossland remained a partner until Battle bought him out in 1993.
|Battle oversaw the growth of the college licensing business from T-shirts and hats to such diverse products as perfume, keyboards, billiard balls, hair dryers and tires.
The schools, the licensees and the retailers all could win if they were in this together, Battle said. Sure, they’d have to pay royalties, but with the top schools finally available from the same licensing agent, licensees could go one place to acquire 40 or 50 licenses, and eventually, the overall pie would grow so much faster.
The schools liked the enforcement that came with it, too. Administrators used to throw up their hands every time they saw unlicensed products that didn’t reflect well on the school, thinking they couldn’t do anything about it.
Battlin’ Bulldog Beer was one of those products. The cans featured a hung-over Georgia Bulldog in a school sweater with bloodshot eyes. The school took the beer’s distributor, Bill Laite of Macon, Ga., to court in 1985 to make him stop marketing the beer cans with the unlicensed Bulldog mascot.
CLC also developed the first label that identified “officially licensed collegiate products.”
Despite some of those wins, not everyone was on board. Many administrators doubted that there was any money in licensing. Arkansas AD Frank Broyles had to be convinced that the school even owned the rights to its own marks.
University bookstores, the only place consumers could find school merchandise back then, weren’t in favor of the new model, either. They already had the market cornered. Bookstores bought from whichever manufacturers they wanted, and royalties weren’t being paid. Battle had to convince them that his model would make them more money eventually.
“One of the smartest things we did was put incentives for the schools in the contracts,” Battle said. “Once I saw that we could get the schools to sign, I wasn’t worried about making enough money. I was worried about making too much. I didn’t want anyone on campus asking why they were paying us all that money. So we put incentives in there that paid the school even more as sales went up. The more we got, the more they got.”
Before Battle consolidated the college market, it was extremely fragmented, requiring a licensee to go from school to school to buy the rights. Battle had to sell administrators on his vision of a model that resembled the NFL’s, where all of the marks were available in one place.
Along the way, CLC broadened its business to represent NASCAR — Battle actually started NASCAR’s licensing business — and the PGA Tour, but it never strayed from its college roots.
“You just couldn’t conceive of someone better suited to start CLC than Bill,” said Russ Richards, Battle’s attorney for the last 20 years. “He’s this tall, handsome guy with this disarming personality who just sets everyone at ease. He had been an athlete and a coach, and he knew how the college administrators thought.
“This is the guy who is the smartest guy in the room, but he never acts like he’s the smartest guy in the room.”
Over the years, schools saw Battle as less of an old coach and more of a business ally who understood the challenges on campus and could respond with a service-oriented approach. That’s why athletic directors still call him, whether they have a question about business or they’re looking to hire a position.
He remains one of the most quietly influential figures in college athletics today, even though he has slipped away from the day-to-day duties of running the company. Working as CLC’s chairman and an adviser for the company’s management, Battle, 70, remains that important figure because of his deep relationships with clients and his ties to CLC’s past.
His sons, Pat and Mike, and daughter Shannon worked in the business through the years, and Pat became an influential figure in the sale of CLC to IMG. He led the growth of IMG College from 2007 to 2011, when he left the company.
Consolidating the college marketplace from a marketing and sponsorship standpoint was Pat’s ultimate goal at IMG College, but he took his cue from his dad, he said.
More than 30 years ago, Bill Battle saw how the fragmented college marketplace could be brought together, and CLC came as close to doing it as anyone could.
“The original vision for all of this was my dad’s,” Pat Battle said. “He saw that it could be done.”
‘DOING THE RIGHT THING’
The halls inside CLC’s Atlanta office today are a testament to Battle’s vision. Boots with Oklahoma State marks, a red Georgia tool box and a UCLA No. 1 foam finger are among the hundreds of licensed products that line the walls.
As long as Battle is in town and not visiting one of his vacation homes or his favorite retreat, a several-hundred-acre farm northeast of Atlanta, he’s in the office taking calls from longtime associates like Alabama AD Mal Moore or serving as a resource to IMG College’s Sutton, who oversees CLC’s business now. Mostly, though, Battle enjoys the spoils of what he’s built. He’d just as soon be outside, hunting turkeys or dropping a line the water.
|Top: Battle, with NACDA’s Bob Vecchione (left), son and then-CLC executive Pat Battle (second from right) and ESPN’s Rob Temple, mark CLC’s 25th anniversary in 2006. Above: The National Football Foundation honored Battle, T. Boone Pickens (center) and John Glenn at its awards dinner in 2008.
“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it when Bill Battle called me back,” White said. “My parents couldn’t believe it. I knew he had this little sports marketing company down in Selma, and to me, working for him was my dream job.”
White had been onboard just a year or so and was still green to the licensing business when Battle shocked him with an assignment to go pitch Tennessee for its licensing business.
White guessed at the time that Battle didn’t want to go because of how the Volunteers treated the former coach when he was there. Even though Battle took the Vols to a bowl game in each of his first five seasons, he was fired in year seven, and throughout his tenure, the local fans never warmed to him. One day, Battle pulled up to his house in Knoxville to find a moving van sitting there. Other times, fans would come by in the middle of the night and express their displeasure by putting “For Sale” signs in his front yard.
Battle was an Alabama guy, and even his 59-22-2 record with the Vols wasn’t enough to satisfy the Big Orange faithful.
When White returned from making his pitch to Tennessee administrators, Battle commended him for a job well done. It was later White found out that Battle already had secured the business. He just sent White for a confidence-building experience. Battle hired a lot of recent college graduates at CLC just like White because he liked their enthusiasm and energy.
That day over lunch, White, now a high-ranking marketing executive with Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, repeated to Battle something he’s said a hundred times.
“Bill, I can’t believe you gave me a chance,” White told him. “He gave a young guy a chance, and I’ll forever be appreciative of that. And the thing is that he’s done that for a lot of people.”
Cory Moss, a senior vice president at CLC and a veteran of nearly 20 years at the company, runs the day-to-day business now. He’s one of those many young people who dreamed of a profession in sports and started at CLC.
Moss can recall two occasions that he’s been in the hospital during that span, and Battle was the first non-family member to visit each time, including once when Moss’ wife had triplets, only to lose two of them from complications of a premature birth.
“Bill was right there for us,” Moss said. “He is the consummate leader by example. … The one thing he always talks about is doing the right thing for the client, even if it might not be the best financial decision for the company. He believes that if you do the right thing for the client, the program will grow.”
Just look at Battle’s associations through the years and you’ll understand why so many people call him the Southern gentleman of the college business. His banker, Rod Knowles, has been his friend and adviser for 30 years. Richards, his attorney, has worked with Battle for some 20 years.
He still goes bird hunting with his college roommate and Crimson Tide teammate Butch Wilson, and he still goes to visit Alabama’s Moore, who played with Battle on that 1961 national championship team, to talk about the good old days.
Nobody, it seems, just does business with Battle. They form relationships, and more times than not, those relationships last a lifetime.
“Bill has backed an untold number of people,” Knowles said. “He probably wouldn’t want me to tell this, but he has given support to so many people who have fallen on hard times, just because he believed in them or wanted to help them.”
CLC is the perfect reflection of Battle. IMG has owned the company for five years now, but a trip around the CLC home office near the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta reveals just one small IMG logo. CLC has maintained its name and an identity separate from parent company IMG because of all the personal equity Battle built into it over the last 30 years.
“There’s just a great reverence for Coach Battle and for CLC,” Sutton said. “A lot of people thought that Bill probably would have moved on after IMG bought the company, but I’ve pleaded for him to stay and remain engaged. He’s a great visionary, a great entrepreneur and he’s been a role model for somebody like me. He has an amount of good will, of social capital, that’s really unmatched. The way I hear schools talk about CLC and Bill Battle, that’s how I want them to talk about IMG College.”