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Volume 21 No. 30
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Whitener sees opportunities in technology, college sports

Gordon Whitener has his fingerprints on up to a dozen businesses at any given time. Some he owns, some he consults with, and some he guides from a distance. His business, The Whitener Co., typically invests in businesses — a portion of which are sports-related — that play in the media and marketing space. He’s been both opportunistic and cautious in this uncertain economy, but as his venture in fledgling Bespoke Sports and Entertainment (operated by former GMR Marketing senior executives Mike Boykin and Greg Busch) suggests, he’s as interested in the people as the business.

“The thing for me, whether I was running a business or looking at a business: It starts with people,” Whitener said. “I’ve always believed the key was to out-people the competition. If you look across a lot of what we’re doing, that’s a big part of it.”

He spoke with SportsBusiness Journal’s Michael Smith about working as an entrepreneur and new opportunities available through technology.

The head of The Whitener Co. typically invests in businesses involved in media and marketing.
Photo by: THE WHITENER CO.

What is the environment economically for an entrepreneur right now?
WHITENER:
It’s mixed. The economy is bumpy, so it’s a little more of a challenge to raise capital and do things on the debt side than other times. But the exciting part, which is where we play a lot, is on the technology side. There are so many new and exciting advances in so many industries, it makes it really an exciting time.

Speaking of technology, what has your interest these days?
WHITENER:
Virtual reality is here, and literally in the next three to four years, we’re going to see a lot happen with it across travel, education, sports, music — a lot of areas. I just visited CBS digital, and what is coming is staggering, from an experiential viewpoint. Can you imagine sitting in a classroom and literally be able to experience the Louvre or Notre Dame?

Your Wrangler Network live-streamed a number of rodeo events this year. What did you learn from that effort?
WHITENER:
For one thing, 60-some percent of the content was consumed on the mobile phone. It’s really staggering to think about how that will look in the future. … The big spaces are taken, but there’s more opportunity in developing content. The days of producing incredible content, taking that content to a network, and them writing you a big check are dissipating. You’ve got brands dying for content and you’ve got incredible content producers all over the country, but [they] never had a way to get to each other. So we started Brands2Fans as a company that connects them.

In a previous professional life, you ran Host Communications. What grabs your attention in the college rights space now?
WHITENER:
In the case of both Learfield and IMG College, they’re in environments that are ripe for acquisitions. When a private equity buys an IMG or a Learfield, they’re going to see that those two already have all of the big schools, and it’s not like there are going to be new schools created. They’ve got to have bolt-on acquisitions to make the private-equity story work and get a significant return on their investment. We’re going to continue to see both parent companies look for acquisitions that make sense. It’s a much quicker way to create growth and leverage the relationships they have in the college space.

Given that the college rights space is pretty mature, where would you look?
WHITENER:
Where I see opportunities going forward is in the recruiting space. It’s still very active.