How Schools and Brands Are Navigating an Evolving College Sports Landscape
LEARFIELD is a longtime leader in connecting brands and media companies with collegiate athletic programs across the U.S., currently working with more than 1,000 schools. John oversees the firm’s multimedia and sponsorship rights representation for nearly 200 schools, including roughly 75 percent of the Power Five conference institutions. LEARFIELD’s additional services include publishing, audio, digital and social media; data analytics; ticket sales and professional concessions expertise; branding; campus-wide business and venue technology systems.
John connected with podcast host Jim Andrews to examine some of the new developments in college athletics and what they mean for schools, student athletes and their brand and media partners. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: You’ve been with LEARFIELD for about a year now after a long, successful career on the pro sports side with WWE, the NFL, Major League Baseball and the Boston Celtics. What has been the biggest difference in operating in the collegiate space vs. the pros?
John: There’s so much that’s different and there is so much that is the same. The reality is whether you are at the Boston Celtics, Major League Baseball, the NFL, etc., you look for partnerships and you look for opportunities to add value. Commissioner Selig taught me a long time ago, when we would bring ideas and business opportunities to him, he would look me in the eye and say, “Is this going to make it better for the fan?”
That’s where many of the best ideas are born, whether it’s on the pro side or the collegiate side. What’s different in what I have experienced at Learfield is the passion people feel and the genuine connection they have in college. That doesn’t mean pro sports haven’t done a great job to engage their audiences; they have, whether it’s through technology, fandom or programming, but face painting? Invented here. The legend of college athletics is real.
There are over 180 million collegiate athletic fans—more than any professional sports league. The collegiate experience is engrained in the very culture of towns and cities where schools are located, not to mention students, families, alumni, etc. That helps cultivate opportunities for fans, brands, and the connection these athletes and competitions give on the collegiate side.
Jim: With all the uncertainty surrounding conference realignment and other issues facing collegiate athletics today, I imagine some prospective partners might prefer to wait until the dust settles, but what’s the counterpoint that this is a good time for brands to align with college sports?
John: I’ll start macro. For the early part of my and your careers, sports were an amazing ecosystem that was just to the left or just to the right of center in the marketing mix for brands. The center was primetime TV buys with programs like Seinfeld and Friends. That paradigm has shifted completely. Sports is now at the very center of the media and entertainment space. It is the programming and content that wins the day. It’s what brands want to affiliate with and it’s what fans are tuning into. That’s a tremendous opportunity and responsibility for all of us who work in this space.
Specific to college, if brands don’t seize the opportunity, it may just pass them by. That’s true throughout content distribution and media, and what I mean by that is, there is going to be change, evolution and risk. There will be times when different parts of the collegiate landscape sparkle more than others.
But what I ask myself, my team and ultimately our partners, is, “Do fans want to connect? Do fans want to get closer? Do fans want to ingest the content that is collegiate athletics?” It may not be the same as it was a few years ago. It may not be just that Saturday afternoon audience, as much as we love it. It’s the entire lifestyle. It’s what does it take for a student athlete to be a student and an athlete. How do they live? How do they train? What do they eat? That type of content is where brands can make a value-add to the connection that fans feel for an athlete, or more notably for an institution.
Is there unrest or change? Yes, that’s life—constant change. I have not really encountered brands who say, “Well, we’re not sure where it’s going to play out with realignment or the transfer portal.”
Jim: Can you talk about some of the new and emerging categories for college sports sponsorship and how LEARFIELD is navigating these with its school partners and brands?
John: This isn’t specific to collegiate athletics; it’s tied to the entire sports marketing and sports media landscape: Technology is at the center. How people ingest content is changed. The power is not in just whether you walk through the gates or you turn on your television at home; it’s much greater than that. It’s what you want, when you want it, where you want it and how you want it. That’s the consumers’ empowerment.
How we deliver on what they are asking for is through compelling content, but also through partnerships, as well we as through campaigns that drive awareness and excitement.
That takes nothing away from the more traditional partners. We are fortunate to have a longstanding and very successful relationship with Allstate, Nissan, State Farm, across many of our schools. That being said, technology has allowed new players into the consciousness of the fan, whether that’s crypto, CBD, sports wagering, a much more evolved alcohol and spirits category, men’s and women’s health—these are categories that have greatly evolved over the past few years.
You and I were not having a crypto conversation five years ago. We’re fortunate and proud to have done one of the first and largest deals in the crypto space at University of California, Berkeley with FTX, who is the industry leader in that space. Those things that FTX is bringing to the experience at FTX Field at Memorial Stadium at Cal are making the experience better for fans. We just want to give opportunities like that for brands like FTX.
Or in the alcohol space, where it used to be an arms race between Budweiser and MillerCoors—and those two are tremendous leaders in the field—but there are so many different elements, whether it’s wine, whether it’s hard alcohol, seltzer—how do all of those live together and how do they add value and an upside for fans? How do you look to categories, whether they are new or old, and try to create value?
Those are some of the places we’ve seen it most recently. Any time I think I know what’s coming next, I’m proven to be a step or two behind, but we’re fortunate having just under 200 school partners and what we learn at Texas Tech may be different than what we learn at UConn, which may be different than what we learn at the University of Florida. With all those boots on the ground, we’re learning constantly about all these areas.
The role of the athletic director, who is our day-to-day lead at schools is really complicated. They have to support student athletes, they have to work amid the backdrop of an institution of higher education—how are we educating these student athletes and making that experience better?—they have to work within the rules and regulations of their conference, of the NCAA, of their state government. Oh, and you also have to win!
What we are there to do is help them look ahead, see the trends, find the right partners and grow the opportunities for their schools and universities to do what they are in the business of doing, which is educating the young people of the next generation.
Jim: In addition to traditional MMR and sponsorship rights, the revenue buckets for college athletic programs are evolving. Apart from NIL, which I’d like to address separately, we’re seeing alcohol sales, more commercial naming rights, inclusion of other campus “inventory,” etc. What is LEARFIELD’s approach to those developments?
John: In many ways it’s the same sort of conversation. As technology helps us all live different, better, and hopefully more complete lives, how do we serve that in our capacity as a solution for improving the collegiate landscape. Some of that may be with an athletic director’s need for revenue, some of it may be to help with furthering women’s athletics, some of it may be an education program throughout an entire campus.
All of those things are part of what LEARFIELD, and not just the MMR group, are tasked with doing. It may be a need to recreate a signage opportunity through ANC, which is one of our companies. Or it may be how to provide a ticketing solution through Paciolan, which is the second largest ticketing company in the country. Or buying a t-shirt through CLC or checking out a website that is probably in some way powered by SIDEARM Sports. All of those are part of what we deliver as a solution. That’s why when you ask what do we see, when I look at us, I say that LEARFIELD is the front door to college athletics, and maybe to college more broadly.
We support the universities, and one of our differentiators is that we do it locally. Our people at the University of Michigan live in Ann Arbor and wear that golf shirt, but we also have an enormous reservoir of opportunity because we have this national network and have the ability to take what you’re doing at Indiana University or Colorado State or Florida State and tie it together through a national platform and national solutions across different forms of media with all of the different forms of intellectual property.
To your question, we can then add in other elements. Maybe it’s a campus-wide banking deal that we can help a school with to put more ATMs on campus. Maybe it’s bringing crypto to campus. Maybe it’s to do a better education process for student athletes with recovery and wellness tied to CBD. All of those things are part of what we feel we have a responsibility to deliver. That’s becoming more of who we are and what we do.
Part of our MMR team is Campus+, which has the opportunity to do things throughout the campus. We also have people who are embedded in the athletic department who are there to capture content. They can help curate that in a way that may be valuable to a fan, to a brand, to the athletic department for use as a fund-raiser. It’s not just about how do you sell more stuff. It’s about solutions, some of which may be commercial, but some that for donors, or the student athletes, etc.
Jim: Let’s talk about NIL. How does LEARFIELD “fit” in this new NIL era and are you able to be involved – and help sponsors interested in working with student-athletes?
John: It’s so in the infancy stage that any of us who say they know where NIL is going, absolutely don’t!
What can we do to help brands, the schools and universities and the student athletes, and do it all with the backdrop of doing it right, making sure none of the student athletes get themselves in trouble, etc.
Because we represent our school partners’ intellectual property, how do we make this turnkey and compelling? How do we make sure the student athletes are educated on what they have to declare, taxes, etc. All of that goes into the LEARFIELD solution, whether it’s finding the right partner through our partnership with Opendorse, whether it’s through LEARFIELD Studios—a huge focus for us—which creates the content working with the student athletes, or whether it’s working collectively with the athletic department if there are IP opportunities that include student athletes, which is something that has exploded over the last three months.
We don’t represent student athletes. We represent the schools and universities. But we are an enabler, a connector and a unifier.
No two schools are doing it the same way. Every state is different, every school is different. There are collectives, etc. All of these things are just pieces of data that we put into the sifter and say, “How can we solve a problem for the university today.”
I don’t know where all this goes. I know that there is a craving for it and NIL is a super important part of our job. It’s what the brands want and what the fans want. Fans want to hear from student athletes. They want to know what an athlete has to do on a Tuesday night after practice, how many classes they are taking, what they eat, where they live.
Where will it be six months or a year from now? It will continue to be part of the ecosystem, the same way it has been on the professional side for decades. That’s why we created LEARFIELD ALLIED, which is what we call our system to align the school, the brand and the student athlete.
Jim: At the time of our recording, college football is just about set to kick-off. I know you work with hundreds of national and local sponsors who see tremendous value in investing in reaching the college sports fanbases. Can you tell me about a couple of deals that are especially unique or new you’d like to highlight?
John: I’m so fortunate to see so many different partnerships, whether it’s at the local level or at the national level. I’m excited about a new program we are doing at the University of Texas with American Airlines. On the national level, there is our program with DeWalt, which is the first time they have dipped their toes into the collegiate athletic space. They have helped us literally build benches on the sidelines for heating and cooling the student athletes through our partnership with Dragon Seats. It’s a fun program that’s providing value to the athletes, the universities and DeWalt.
And let’s not forget that the beginning of the football season is also the beginning of many other fall sports on the collegiate side, for men and for women. This year is the 50th anniversary of LEARFIELD and also the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which is an opportunity to not only look back and honor what we’ve done, but to embrace the huge opportunity moving forward to work with brands and schools to further the growth of women in the collegiate athletic space, as well as men.