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Volume 21 No. 2

Marketing and Sponsorship

IMG College is going pro.

The company’s stadium seating business, which has a broad base of college clients, is expanding to the NFL by signing deals with the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills. Those agreements will enable IMG College to install its seat cushion product in both teams’ stadiums, and the company is talking to other NFL teams as well.

Fans can lease the cushions for $50 a seat for the entire season.

The expansion of IMG College’s seating business into the pro football ranks comes after the company built a client base of more than 130 college stadiums. The only other exposure the seating business has outside of college sports is with a handful of NASCAR tracks.

At Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium and Tennessee’s LP Field, IMG will be installing its MVP seat, which is a seat cushion that fits onto the back and bottom of a fold-down seat, and features the logos of the teams.

Direct mail and email marketing to season-ticket holders began last week and on the first day IMG recorded 600 sales, about 300 each at Buffalo and Tennessee. Fans lease the seat cushions from IMG College for $50 a seat for the entire season. The cushion, which straps onto the bottom and back of the permanent seat, stays in place throughout the season, so there’s nothing for the fans to carry in and out of the stadium.

IMG College is responsible for any maintenance on the cushions. It negotiates revenue-share arrangements with the teams, just as it does with its college clients.

“Every stadium has a different seat size or design, and we custom-fit these cushions to any stadium’s seat,” said Franklin Yancey, who along with John Hite runs IMG College’s stadium seating division, both at the vice president level. Yancey and Hite report to Mark Dyer, a senior vice president who oversees IMG College’s ancillary businesses, which are those outside of multimedia rights.

IMG College will install its MVP seat cushion, which fits onto the back and bottom of fold-down seats and features team logos.

Yancey and Hite, a pair of Virginia Tech graduates, were partners in stadium seating when they launched the business as students in 1999 under the name College Comfort. IMG acquired it in 2010 and with it created a new stadium seating division within its college line.

The company was founded to add comfort to stadium seating, largely by putting seat-back chairs onto bleacher seats. But the seat cushion, which IMG calls its MVP seat, is the company’s latest development. Hite and Yancey tested the cushions at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Rose Bowl last season during Southern California and UCLA games. Feedback was good, so they moved forward with the cushion sales.

Earlier this year, IMG College acquired a premium license from the NFL, which gave it the ability to go negotiate with NFL teams. Talks continue with multiple teams, and Yancey and Hite characterized the next three months as their prime selling season.

On the college front, IMG College already has been in talks with several of its school clients about the MVP seat cushion. Many of them, including Notre Dame, Alabama and Arkansas, are using the cushions as an amenity in their club areas, and others are considering making them available to the entire season-ticket base.

Hite and Yancey intend to take the cushion and seat-back rental business beyond football. They’re looking at baseball, soccer and just about any other event played in a stadium.

IMG College has begun selling advertising on its college cushions and seat backs. Such an arrangement has not been reached with the NFL yet, they said, but they are in talks to potentially add a commercial component.

NASCAR is in advanced talks with Comcast Xfinity about becoming title sponsor of the sport’s secondary series.

Nationwide Insurance, which has sponsored the series since 2007, is in the final year of its title sponsorship, and NASCAR has been looking for a replacement sponsor for the Nationwide Series since last fall.

Conversations with Xfinity, which is Comcast’s video service, have been going on for several months. Sources familiar with the negotiations said the parties have not reached a contract phase but that Comcast has emerged as a leading candidate for the sponsorship.

Nationwide is in the last year of its deal for the secondary series’ title sponsorship, which it bought in 2007.

NASCAR Chief Sales Officer Jim O’Connell said the company doesn’t comment on discussions with current or potential sponsors. He added, “With regards to the Nationwide Series, we’re speaking to a number of companies in a number of different industries.”

Comcast did not reply to a request for comment.

NASCAR is asking $12 million to $15 million annually in rights fees for the title sponsorship of the series. Media and activation commitments would take the total costs of the deal to more than $25 million.

The sanctioning body hopes to finalize a deal by late this summer and announce a partnership in the third quarter of this year. 

In addition to Comcast Xfinity, NASCAR has met with a number of companies in the auto aftermarket category, including Advance Auto Parts and AutoZone.

Comcast’s Xfinity emerged as a major sports sponsor during the last three years when it began partnering with professional sports teams in Comcast markets. It has more than a dozen sports sponsorships, including deals with the Atlanta Braves, Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers.

A deal to create the Xfinity Series would further entwine Comcast and NASCAR. Last year, Comcast-owned NBC Sports signed a 10-year, $4.4 billion deal to broadcast half of the Sprint Cup and half of the Nationwide Series seasons.

Under terms of most media rights agreements, TV partners commit to spend a certain amount of marketing dollars to promote the sport on an annual basis. Sources familiar with Comcast’s negotiations said that the company could count title sponsorship of the Xfinity Series and subsequent promotion of that series toward its NBC marketing commitment. That would allow the company to reduce some marketing costs while also promoting Xfinity.

O’Connell is spearheading the sales effort. He sold the Nationwide deal in 2007 and Camping World’s title sponsorship of the truck series in 2008. He also negotiated Sprint’s recent renewal for the top series through 2016 and Camping World’s renewal for the truck series through 2022.

Viewership for the Nationwide Series is flat this year. Through 12 events, it was averaging 1.8 million viewers per event on ESPN.

Nationwide Insurance is spending approximately $10 million in rights fees for title sponsorship of the series. Its total spend, which includes activation at track and media spending, is in excess of $20 million.

The company opted to discontinue its sponsorship of the series in order to become an official NASCAR sponsor and sponsor the No. 88 car driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Next year, Nationwide will sponsor the sport’s most popular driver in 12 Sprint Cup races.

We run from pack journalism, so the concept here is to write about the Los Angeles Clippers without once mentioning the team’s owner. This is for those who were in the bunker with the Clippers during the years they played in the squalor of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, while the “Showtime” Lakers were winning championships at the Fabulous Forum with hall of famers like Kareem, Magic and Worthy.

While they were the second NBA team in Los Angeles, the Clippers weren’t even good enough to be considered second banana. Still, the bond among those who worked in their front office is unique in pro sports. With the Clippers in the news for so many other tiresome reasons, it’s the ties cementing this group that we wanted to examine.

LinkedIn has 830 listings of former Clippers employees. What connects them? Certainly, they share some sort of bond — the type shared by those accustomed to operating under duress.

The Clippers, shown in ‘94, often played to empty seats at Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

“We all still bleed Clippers red,” said Mitch Huberman, who worked for the team from 1986 to 1997, ending as senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting. “It’s our own fraternity.”

Huberman’s tenure with the Clippers included the ignominy of a 12-70 season. “Everyone knew we weren’t the Lakers, but you also had the opportunity to make your mark and you could try almost anything.”

For some, the team was the first job after college. “Our staff had to work harder than any other and we were in the trenches every day,” said Randy Hersh Hanlon, who worked for the Clippers from 1985 to 1990, ending as the team’s director of marketing. After a year on the job, Hanlon was asked to run the Clippers’ ticketing. At the time, she’d never been inside the team’s box office. Hanlon left the Clippers to work for the NBA in team marketing and business operations.

For Clippers marketers, the presence of a common foe just eight miles away, in Inglewood, helped unite them. “We developed lifetime bonds working against the Lakers,” said Todd Parker, a Clippers employee from 1984 to 1990.

Some 18 years after he toiled in the Clippers’ boiler room, selling season tickets, Denny O’Leary refers to his years with the Clippers (1993-96) as “a crucible.” However, it’s not one he would have willingly forgone, despite all the frustration.

“I learned more curse words in my first year there than at any time before or since,” O’Leary, now vice president of marketing partnerships at the San Diego Chargers, said with a laugh. “But I knew that if I could sell there, I could sell anywhere. … We were working for each other as much as we were for anything else. Things I learned there, I’ve taken with me to every job since.”

“You had to live with a lot of stress, selling and representing a brand that sometimes had such a negative connotation,” sad Paul Phipps, general manager of the Clippers from 1982-84, now CMO at Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing organization. “You learned under fire. It was a stressful situation, but one that’s still serving us all well.”

“We’re all survivors,” said Scott Carmichael, a former Clippers PR director who now heads executive search firm Prodigy Sports. “There were times when you wondered if the team would make it. Then you fast forward to the team being sold for $2 billion and it’s all just amazing.”

Michael Arya worked for the Clippers from 1984-89, heading the team’s sales staff. Arya now coaches team sales staffs and is a partner in TixTrack, a ticketing software company. He said it’s an overstatement to claim that Clippers employees shared a foxhole mentality, “but that group of employees was closer than any I’ve ever seen in 30 years. We ate together, we drank together, and we were in each other’s weddings. Every day, we had two choices: We could laugh or cry. So we laughed and we bonded.”

> BUFFALO HOME: AdPro Sports has signed a five-year deal (three years, with an option for two additional) giving it naming rights to the Buffalo Bills’ field house/training facility and administration building.

The Bills’ training facility has a new name.

What will henceforth be known as the AdPro Sports Training Center, located across the parking lot from Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., is being refurbished at a cost of $10 million, part of $130 million in upgrades in and around the 40-year-old stadium. For the last five years, Blue Cross Blue Shield had titled the training facility building, which also houses offices of the Bills coaches and front-office personnel. The deal also includes a prominent in-bowl sign behind the end zone at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as well as hospitality, advertising in team-controlled media and value-in-kind.

AdPro, one of the largest Nike team dealers in the United States, is already doing business with most of the biggest teams in Western New York, including the Bills and Sabres, as well as Niagara, Canisius and the University of Rochester. However, AdPro Sports President Ron Raccuia is hopeful that the increased branding from the naming-rights deal will allow him to replicate a model that includes local manufacturing at an 80,000-square-foot facility, an NFL license and a solid Nike relationship.

AdPro has been a Bills corporate sponsor for seven years. The upgraded deal also includes category rights in the office supply category for Integrity Office Supply, a related company. Also unusual is that Raccuia is an agent who reps two Bills players: Fred Jackson and Brian Moorman. However, Raccuia says he is wrapping up his days as an agent.

> EXTINCT BUFFALO: After two seasons, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl has been grounded. The casual dining/sports bar chain is exercising an option to check out of the Tempe, Ariz., bowl game, for which it was paying about $3 million a year.

The Fiesta Bowl Committee now is looking at no title-sponsor partners for its largest bookended bowl assets — the Fiesta Bowl, where Pepsi’s Tostitos brand has walked after 18 years, and the former Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which began in Tucson at the University of Arizona as the Cooper Bowl in 1989.

Buffalo Wild Wings was widely acclaimed for the branding achieved at and around the game. However, this year’s game will switch from a matchup of Big Ten and Big 12 schools to a Pac-12/Big Ten matchup, likely a less desirable matchup.

Other factors influencing the decision not to renew included the relatively late air time of the game (after 10 p.m. ET) and the fact that some Buffalo Wild Wings locations were so loyal to the UFC that they showed MMA fights on their many televisions at the exclusion of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Another deciding factor was Pepsi’s growing influence within the chain, which has around 975 domestic locations. Late last year, Buffalo Wild Wings switched from pouring Coke products after 30-plus years to pouring Pepsi. Pepsi’s promise of NFL activation in the restaurants, along with an appearance by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lobbying for the soft drink giant, helped clinch the deal. Recall that McDonald’s and Papa John’s Pizza also hold NFL league rights and it could get a bit crowded next season as far as eateries leveraging the nation’s most popular spectator sport.

Calls to Buffalo Wild Wings agency, Scout Sports & Entertainment, were not returned.

Terry Lefton can be reached at