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Volume 23 No. 18
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Fanatics’ Gahagan shifting to Learfield IMG

Cole Gahagan sees an opportunity to innovate in the college space.
Photo: Fanatics
Cole Gahagan sees an opportunity to innovate in the college space.
Photo: Fanatics
Cole Gahagan sees an opportunity to innovate in the college space.
Photo: Fanatics

Greg Brown and Cole Gahagan met at Del Frisco’s in Dallas for what was supposed to be a casual get-together. Four hours later, Brown and Gahagan were still in their booth at the steakhouse, discussing everything from revenue-generating strategies to Gahagan’s propensity to pull for college teams that wear purple — he grew up in Louisiana as an LSU fan before going to TCU.

 

When they finally parted ways, they were curious enough to keep talking over the next three months until Gahagan, Fanatics’ chief commercial officer, agreed to go to work for Learfield IMG College, where Brown is the longtime president and CEO.

Gahagan, 42, will take on the lengthy title of president, content, revenue and enterprise solutions, essentially overseeing every piece of Learfield IMG College’s business that makes money. His first day will be Jan. 6. Brown’s title remains the same.

“To be honest, I thought of that first meeting as more of a chance to get to know each other,” Brown said. “It wasn’t an interview. I wasn’t really thinking about him for the job because I didn’t think he was gettable.”

That first meeting in Dallas provided a window into the challenges confronting Learfield IMG College in the quickly evolving space — things like college athlete marketing, the fan experience, attendance drops and analyzing data. Learfield IMG College owns the multimedia rights to more than 200 schools, making it the most robust marketing force in college sports.

Gahagan, who already lives in Dallas near Learfield IMG College’s Plano headquarters, previously stepped into chief revenue roles at Ticketmaster and Fanatics as those companies were preparing for change, and he became instrumental in growing their businesses. At Fanatics, Gahagan was responsible for expanding and managing the team business as the retailer developed its innovative vertical strategy to design, manufacture and distribute sports merchandise.

He believes the college space, which is on the cusp of new laws governing athlete marketing rights, similarly is ripe for disruption.

“I would say that it’s one of the driving factors for the move itself,” Gahagan said. “This is an incredibly exciting time in college athletics, and there’s a lot of change afoot. I don’t think there is a better company to usher the industry into this new era. And, in the process of doing that, disrupt the way that we have traditionally acted in college athletics.

“So when those discussions began, it became clear pretty quickly that the opportunity was to disrupt both the company and the industry to position ourselves to not only grow, but to help both universities and brands grow at the same time as well.”

Many of Gahagan’s discussions at Learfield IMG College revolved around adapting to a new collegiate model where brands might choose to spend their marketing dollars on athletes rather than schools.

“What has to sit at the center of all of that is maybe not disruption as much as it is innovation,” Gahagan said of helping Learfield IMG College and its school clients adapt to new name, image and likeness laws. “What I’d like to believe the industry wants is an outspoken commitment by Learfield IMG College to go innovate.”

Gahagan joins a senior leadership team at Learfield IMG College that Brown has gradually restructured to take on these new challenges. Most of his recent hires have been high-level executives who came from outside college sports. That’s been by design to diversify the types of experience they bring to the 2,500-employee company.

Rob Schneider, chief strategy and development officer, joined the company 15 months ago from GroupM. Temple Weiss, chief administrative officer, came from a real estate company in Dallas.

“Cole is a really thoughtful, strategic guy with a wide range of experiences in large-scale commercial enterprises,” Brown said. “If you think about it, we’ve got all these guys that are some of the brightest minds, specifically in sponsorship. So, I wasn’t looking for a guy that had a bigger Rolodex of sponsors to go call on.”