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Volume 21 No. 1
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In Fox deal, USC finds strength in going solo

IMG College and Learfield Sports, the two most dominant multimedia rights holders in college sports, have spent the better part of three years trying to outdo each other. Fox Sports, meanwhile, owns the rights at one school — the University of Southern California — and the sports media giant is perfectly happy with that.

The sponsor zone outside USC games is populated with national brands.
As Fox closes out its third fiscal year at USC, it will post total revenue that nearly triples what the school was able to sell by itself before Fox came along. USC was among the last schools to manage rights in-house before signing a 10-year deal with Fox that guarantees $7 million to $8 million annually.

The combination of USC’s national brand, a larger sales team that works both local and national accounts, and an expanding portfolio of rights has positioned Fox to outpace its revenue projections in year three, which closes next month. While USC is a private school and not required to release its financials, Steve Lopes, the athletic department’s chief financial officer and COO, said that Fox is on pace to hit year-five projections two years ahead of schedule. New inventory at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and L.A. Sports Arena, as well as rights to USC’s alumni association — assets that weren’t originally part of the deal — have helped spur that growth.

While Fox doesn’t have the scale of a Learfield, which owns the rights at 90 schools, or IMG College, which has 80 schools, it has uncovered a certain strength in flying solo with just one school property.

“We were concerned that, with no scale, we’d get left at the doorstep,” said Dan Shell, Fox’s general manager of the USC property. “But what we’re finding is that there’s power in being just one school. We can do a much better job of servicing the brands individually.”

When the Trojans made their rights available in 2011, Fox had a unique interest given that it typically doesn’t handle collegiate multimedia rights. The only other college property Fox had worked with was Florida, and Fox hired IMG College to run that. But both Fox and USC are big brands based in Los Angeles, and their leaders — USC AD Pat Haden and Fox Networks Group President and COO Randy Freer — have known each other for years. Fox liked the cachet that came with the USC association in its own backyard, and the Trojans liked the idea of being Fox’s only school, rather than being one of many at IMG College or Learfield, both of which submitted bids.

“They didn’t represent anybody else, and that was actually attractive,” said Lopes, a 30-year veteran in the USC athletic department. “They bring a powerful brand and they’ve got a big presence in Southern California. We liked the idea of being one of one, not one of 60.”

Much of the Fox-owned USC Sports Properties looks similar to other properties run by IMG College and Learfield, from the staff embedded in the athletic department to traditional inventory like radio advertising, stadium and arena signs, game-day hospitality and corporate sponsorship. In fact, Fox brought in Shell from IMG College, where he was a national and regional sales executive, well-versed in the traditional model of school properties.

The size of the staff — seven full-timers — makes USC among the larger properties nationally. Each of the staffers, including Shell, has selling responsibilities. IMG and Learfield properties have staffs that range from five to 10 people at the largest schools. When the Trojans ran sales in-house, they had a staff of four.

Fox’s size also enables it to reach sponsors that it might not have found otherwise. Fox Sports’ sales unit, Home Team Sports, made the initial contact with Japanese airline ANA and turned over the lead to Shell’s team, which closed a sponsorship deal.

The greatest difference between Fox and the two dominant college agencies is their size. Such scale has enabled IMG College and Learfield to package several schools into large national buys for companies like UPS, Keurig, Lowe’s and others. Shell was concerned that USC might be overlooked by businesses in search of those bigger deals. But Allstate, Continental Tires, JetBlue, ANA, Audi and Chevron are among the sponsors that have come on board at USC since Fox took over the rights. Deals average about $200,000 a year, with some starting in the five figures and others escalating well into the six figures.

“There are certainly efficiencies to the bigger deals at IMG and Learfield, but what I like is the direct access I get to the property at USC,” said Dan Keats, Allstate’s director of integrated marketing, who oversees 78 school relationships as part of the field goal nets program.

Keats said he often finds himself talking to national sales reps at IMG or Learfield who are not on campus, while his contacts at USC work out of Heritage Hall on USC’s campus, just steps away from Haden’s office. Learfield and IMG have staff embedded on campuses as well, but national accounts like Allstate often funnel to the regional sales reps, who work out of regional offices.

“I want the personal relationship at the school,” said Travis Roffler, director of marketing at Continental Tires. “I want to know who is taking care of my brand.”

Whether Fox’s success at USC leads to interest in other schools remains to be seen.

“We’re certainly not looking for 20 new schools,” Shell said. “But if the right one came along, we’d look at it.”