By Barry Janoff
November 12, 2012: College sports are big, and are also big business. But big in this case may be an understatement.
More than 173 million people consider themselves to be fans of college sports, the largest accumulative number among any sport in the U.S. Among that figure are nearly 80 million female fans, also the largest among any sport in America.
And here are other key figures that drive marketers into activation mode: More than 29 million fans of college sports earn $100,000 or more annually, college sports fans are 35% more likely than the general population to own a small business and in 2011 consumers spent more than $4.6 billion on college-related merchandise.
Those numbers are courtesy of IMG College, a division of IMG Worldwide. IMG College represents more than 200 college properties across the country, including the NCAA and its 89 championships. IMG College was formed as a result of the acquisitions of Host Communications and The Collegiate Licensing Co. in 2007, and then expanded when ISP Sports was acquired in 2010.
Although IMG College works with college athletics across the board, the big drivers are football and basketball. And for good reason. Through the first five weeks of the 2012 season, college football was No. 1 four times among all shows in Saturday night prime time ratings. And according to marketing, research and consulting firm Kantar Media, New York, companies spend more than $738 million on advertising during March Madness, second only to NFL post-season and Super Bowl ($900 million-plus) and nearly double the ad spend during the MLB and NBA post-seasons.
Among Winston Salem, NC-based IMG College's major partnership opportunities are multimedia rights, licensing, events and hospitality, marketing, stadium and arena development, stadium seating solutions, ticketing, sales, and consulting. IMG College produces nearly 30,000 hours of radio programming via 800 radio affiliates (airing primarily football and men's basketball games and weekly call-in coaches' show) and oversees nearly 5,000 hours of local programming on more than 100 television stations. IMG College is also a leading publisher of college sports publications (including NCAA Final Four, university yearbook and game-day programs) and the largest manager of university athletic Web sites.
In addition, the organization has a stake in the Longhorn Network along with ESPN and the University Texas at Austin.
George Pyne has been president of IMG College sports and entertainment since February 2006. Prior to that he spent 11 years with Nascar, most recently as COO.
As the 2012 college football Bowl Championship Series nears its conclusion and the 2012-13 college hoops season begins, NYSportsJournalism spoke with Pyne about the strong loyalty for college sports among fans and consumers and its growth in marketing, sponsorship, hospitality, stadium and campus activations and media.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Would you compare anything in college sports to the Super Bowl?
George Pyne: The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl. It is in its own category. But March Madness and the Final Four is a major time for colleges, fans and marketers. The BCS is major for fans and activation. If you look at the numbers on TV and the amazing, passionate interest among fans, we consider these events to be the Super Bowls of college sports. And, like the Super Bowl, they reach a lot of people who are either casual fans of sports or not fans of college sports at all. Marketers love to see that type of growth.
NYSJ: Has the growing number of universities changing conference affiliation impacted your strategy?
GP: We work with major programs nationwide, so we are not as concerned with which conference or division they play in as fans or alumni or the media might be. The strength for us is in the university itself. If a university feels that it can strengthen its position by changing conferences, we work work them and use that to the advantage of the companies with which we work.
NYSJ: There have been some major recent TV deals involving college sports, including the formation of the Longhorn Network, in which IMG College has a stake along with the University of Texas and ESPN. Do you see more universities following that lead?
GP: Texas is a unique school, and I think the Longhorn Network has a great deal of value. But it's unique. It's one-of-a-kind.
NYSJ: Do you ever see a time when college athletes will get paid for being in ad campaigns and activations among those companies aligned with college sports?
GP: That's a fair question. And I can speak as a former college athlete (captain of the Brown University football team). We are a service provider, so we don't make policies for the industry. We work for the industry. That's an issue on which we don't take a position. I will say that college sports affords students and athletes the opportunity to go to school. Many college athletes don't end up playing professional sports, so they are getting the opportunity to get an education and plan for their future.
"Like the Super Bowl, March Madness and the BCS reach a lot of people who are either casual fans or not fans at all. Marketers love to see that type of growth."
NYSJ: What insights and strategies are you using at IMG College that you developed with Nascar?
GP: First, I will say there are a lot of similarities between Nascar and the marketing activations we are working on with colleges and college sports programs at IMG College. Both have a huge, loyal fan base. And both have a lot of potential, which marketers can use to reach consumers. Interestingly, we have a group of key people now at IMG College who also came from Nascar, among them Roger VanDerSnick (svp, chief sales and marketing officer), Mark Dyer (svp, chief innovation officer) and Andrew Giangola (vp-strategic communications).
That said, there are big differences: Nascar has more than 30 companies that are integrated into the property. When I came here, there were maybe five or six. Nascar has 75 million fans. College sports has more than 173 million fans, and almost 80 million of them are women. Also, our overall demographics are different from Nascar demographics. There is strong loyalty among Nascar fans, but when you look at colleges, the passion is based not only on what teams you like, but also where you attended school. That passion is who you are and what you are.
NYSJ: What do you see as your key strategic goals?
GP: When I started here, [IMG CEO Ted Forstmann] wanted me to look for growth segments. There are not many universities that generate a profit from their sports programs, less than 20 in the nation. So business and marketing, in particular with the football and basketball programs, is essential to generate a revenue stream that supports not only the athletic department but can also be used by universities in other areas. Key among our goals is to generate business and to help the universities with which we work turn a profit. When you look at the demographics, it is easy to see why we are so bullish on reaching these fans and why we see there is so much upside.
NYSJ: What are the advantages for companies that work with IMG College to reach students, alumni and other fans?
GP: Instead of trying to make deals with individual schools, we have the ability to align companies with more than 200 of the top universities across the country. We create integrated platforms that we then bring to companies such as UPS, Lowe's, Hyundai and others. With one buy we can give them 49 of top 50 markets (not in Puerto Rico). And we also reach the largest 18-24-year-old fan base in sports. That's quite a platform.
NYSJ: How important is it to these companies to reach students, fans and consumers on a local basis as well as a national platform?
GP: That is one of our strongest aspects. We can sign companies to a deal under which they can work with all of the top universities nationwide, in their region or locally. That is a major advantage for companies who want to marketing to a strong college fan base without having to make separate deals along the way. We give companies such as Aaron's, Lowe's, Hyundai, Hershey, UPS the ability to reach more than 172 million fans. We then work with them to develop the best strategies in each area. And it goes well beyond marketing, of which a strong part is the 800 radio affiliates and more than 100 television networks with which we work. We also deal work such categories as licensing, hospitality, on-campus events, ticketing and seating. And we can do this on a local, regional and national basis in 49 of the top 50 markets.
NYSJ: What are some good examples of the programs activated by IMG College?
GP: We believe that all of our partnerships are strong and that they each bring something unique into the alliances. Social media is changing the way companies do business and is certainly driving the way that students interact with each other. In August, we signed a deal with Lowe's which we believed was the first time a company became the presenting sponsor of mobile applications from universities nationwide and social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. They also became the official home improvement retailer of schools across the nation and can activate to reach college students and fans nationwide in other areas at these schools. Among other major recent deals, [in August 2011] UPS signed the biggest non-network TV deal ever, which included 68 schools at which they also have exclusive category rights in shipping, freight and logistics. And Hershey's built on its corporate partnership with the NCAA with a deal for its Reese's brand to activate in local markets.
NYSJ: One of the major companies with which you work is MillerCoors. How do you create platforms for them considering that you can't just go out and tell college students and athletes to drink beer?
GP: They have a very strong 'drink responsibly' platform. But our goal in working with companies is to reach not only college students but the millions of fans of college sports. Consumers spent more than $4.6 billion on college-related merchandise last year and more than 29 million fans of college sports earn $100,00 or more annually. So the size of the audience goes well beyond college students. With MillerCoors, we work with them in off-campus destinations where people of legal drinking age are, and also target alumni via hospitality events and other platforms. So, for them, being aligned with college sports really allows them to reach a huge consumer base by combining a 'drink responsibly' message with product marketing.
NYSJ: Given the growth of college sports on ESPN, how important is prime-time network TV to the future of college sports?
GP: If you go back five or six years ago, college sports on Saturday night typically were on ESPN. And they still are on ESPN. But now they are also on ABC, Fox, NBC, CBS. So it's not uncommon to find two networks with a game each Saturday night during prime time. So there can be three broadcasts with Saturday night prime time games and games on ESPN. I once tried to aggregate the ratings of all the games on a Saturday night, and we do a lot of research. It's impossible.
NYSJ: Where is the college sports network growth coming from?
GP: Mostly conferences. The Big Ten has a network. The Pac-12 has a network. I believe that the SEC will soon have a network. And that will only increase the value of the universities in those conferences because the exposure of college sports today has never been higher. And it's increasing.
NYSJ: Why is that?
GP: There are 600 college football games broadcast every weekend. College football was the No. 1 rated prime-time program among all shows in four of the first five weekends this season. And the strength of that statistic is that just four of the 600 games were on national TV during each of those weekends. Who knows how many millions of people are watching? The number is incredible when you think about how many people are actually tuning in. There are more than 33 million people watching on a Saturday prime time. And that's really a small slice of consumption on Saturday night. You can't even accumulate a total figure. It's impossible. If there were only three college football games played on a Saturday, you could measure it. But there are hundreds. The size of this audience is massive, and that's what we bring to marketers, and why marketers want to activate.