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Volume 20 No. 42
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At IMG College, bold plans

Ben Sutton, now chairman, promises expansion

Ben Sutton emerged from his corner office at IMG College with an earpiece still lodged in his right ear. Dressed in a blue shirt and a pink tie, he had just finished a call with Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson.

This is Sutton’s favorite time of year. Whether he’s talking to Clawson, the new coach at his alma mater, or charting a schedule that will send him to 25 college football games this season, including five on Labor Day weekend, Sutton is happily immersed.

“Some people think I’m crazy, but I love it,” he said.

In the aftermath of William Morris Endeavor’s $2.4 billion acquisition of IMG, which has resulted in several high-level personnel changes, Sutton is staying. His friend and boss, IMG Sports & Entertainment President George Pyne, said last week that he is departing the company to start a new business (see related story), and it was thought that Pyne and Sutton were inseparable.

But Sutton said he can’t think of doing anything else, and he has signed a five-year deal that will make him IMG College president and chairman. The chairman title is new.

Sutton, with Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman, signed a new five-year deal at IMG.
Yes, there will be uncomfortable consolidation and cost-cutting ahead — up to $150 million in cuts across all of IMG — but Sutton also says he will expand the college division in the coming months into at least four new areas, either organically or through acquisition.

“We’re going to be boldly aggressive in our business development,” Sutton said of adding ancillary lines of business, which are overseen by senior vice president Mark Dyer. “You’re going to see a lot happening in the next four to six months.”

In a one-hour interview last week at IMG College’s headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., Sutton talked about developing those new lines of business; working with his new direct report, WME co-chair Patrick Whitesell; the recent loss of Kentucky’s multimedia rights; and the messy renegotiation at Syracuse, a longtime client, that became public.

On losing Kentucky’s rights to JMI Sports’ bid of $210 million over 15 years:
“I have been in the multimedia rights business for 23 years, and Kentucky is the first piece of business I’ve ever lost at the BCS level. … We lost by $31 million and frankly when you win, you want to win by a couple of million. When you lose, you want to know you were in the game, but you bled your competitor a little bit. They won by $31 million. We submitted a very robust bid that was significantly greater than what we paid under the previous contract. I don’t think we underbid.”

Will JMI’s entry as a competitor for rights recalibrate the market?
“Do athletic directors read that and get stars in their eyes and think, ‘Is the market being re-set?’ We’ll see. What I know is that we’re going to have, in the next eight weeks or so, a dozen long-term, major, blockbuster extensions in multimedia and licensing, so I feel good about where we’re going.

“The bottom line at Kentucky was that JMI saw something that I didn’t see. That doesn’t mean I’m right. Let’s see where we are two, three years from now.”

JMI’s pitch was boutique over big. It’s a pitch Sutton knows well. When he started his first business, ISP Sports, in 1991, he admittedly used the boutique pitch.

“I’ve been big and I’ve been small and there is no comparison,” he said. “Big is better, because we have great scale, the best radio production capacity in America, the best publishing capability, a national sales capability that comes from being in 51 of the top 56 Nielsen metered markets. We can do that because of our size and scale.”

Despite a broken contract at Syracuse, Sutton said IMG College expects soon to have a long-term extension with the school.

“We’ve been at Syracuse a long time and we’ve gone through several rounds of negotiations,” he said. “When you’ve been with somebody that long, you have healthy debates and arguments. One memo that was supposed to be private was leaked and it caused our company a lot of consternation. But we’d been talking to them about an extension for almost a year.”

On revenue from IMG College’s national sales platform, spearheaded by chief sales officer Roger VanDerSnick and senior vice president Andrew Judelson, approaching $60 million this year:
“Three and a half years ago, it was zero, and I can see a way that it does $100 million in sponsorship revenue. That sets the bar pretty high for Andrew, but that’s why he came here.”

IMG College’s current lines of business include multimedia, licensing, ticketing, stadium seating and fundraising. On growth into new lines of business:

“Once the sale to WME went through earlier this year, we had time to start vetting businesses, something I’ve been doing with George and Patrick. We’ve looked for the opportunities and laid out a plan. … It’s not that we need more clients, we just need our current clients more firmly entrenched with us. If we can have eight verticals instead of four or five, that’s huge.

“I’ve been to 17 campuses in the last 30 days or so to see ADs and presidents. With some of them I trust completely, I ask them what they think about some of the businesses I’d like to enter.”

On ramping up his travel to see client schools, much of which he’s now doing with Whitesell:
“Because of how involved I was with the sales process last fall, I went from visiting 50 campuses a year to maybe 10 last year. Now it’s back to normal. I was at five campuses last week, three this week. … Patrick goes where we need him. He’s been to a half-dozen campuses and he’s going on a tour with me to four schools in four days. He’s not in the day-to-day minutiae and he doesn’t want to be, but he’s curious and he grasps strategy and concepts at a high level.”
On the cost-cutting that’s in the works:

“We’re all thinking about how we can be more efficient and more collaborative. Businesses became siloed. We had golf events, we had tennis events and we had a separate events division. It was famously reported that we had a 30 to 40 percent vacancy rate in our own buildings. Shame on us. Yes, you’ll see consolidation in some areas.”

On whether legal cases against the NCAA could lead to a formal college players association, and whether Collegiate Licensing Co., an IMG business, could become the licensing agency for college players:
“I don’t think any of us know the answer to that. Where there’s change, there’s opportunity. We just have to be adaptable. But we do know that change is in the offing.”