Learfield IMG College and Elevate Sports Ventures, two heavyweights in the billion-dollar world of sports deal-making, are teaming up to help schools across the NCAA find new revenue opportunities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The expertise of the two companies covers almost all the ways athletic departments make money, including multimedia rights, sponsorships, tickets, merchandising, hospitality, e-commerce and fundraising.
The goal is to let each company focus on its specialties, and benefit from the synergies of working in tandem. There is no joint venture, and no cash changing hands up front, but the two will share revenue from the projects they work on together. Elevate will also receive a minimum retainer fee for services provided, according to someone familiar with the negotiations.
The tie-up comes as athletic departments prepare for a return to (relatively) normal business operations this fall. To make up for lost revenue, many schools are exploring commercial opportunities they’ve long avoided, and that’s pushed their partners to offer a fuller suite of services.
“At a high level, the thing that drove the two of us the most was that never in the history of college athletics has there been an inclination by administrators to think differently about big, bold revenue projects,” Learfield IMG College CEO Cole Gahagan said in an interview. “On the heels of COVID, they are certainly thinking about it now. So we looked at that and said, ‘Okay, how do we help open opportunities knowing that that inclination is there?’”
For Elevate, a consulting firm launched in 2018 by the San Francisco 49ers and Harris-Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, partnering with Learfield will open the door to potentially hundreds of college sports clients. Elevate’s current college-sports presence is fairly limited—it works with about 70 schools (30 in the Power Five) through its recent acquisition of ticketing consultant Dynamic Pricing Partners.
Learfield IMG College, which works with more than 1,000 colleges in various endeavors and nearly 200 through lucrative multimedia rights deals, hopes the partnership will broaden the ways it can assist its schools. That includes areas like hospitality sales, facilities feasibility studies and naming rights deals.
Naming rights are an example of the traditionally unexplored revenue projects Gahagan was referencing. Kentucky is the only SEC football team that plays in a stadium with a corporate naming partner (there are two in the Big Ten, and none in the Pac-12), but that may change following the financial losses of the pandemic.
Elevate could just pitch individual colleges for deals like that, but it gains more a more direct entry through this partnership. Plus, the university multimedia rights that Learfield controls are a critical companion to any major venue naming deal.
“In my world, you really can’t sell a big naming rights deal for top-dollar value without the IP rights that Learfield has in its profile,” Elevate CEO Al Guido said in an interview. “These brands want an all-encompassing deal, they don’t want just a sign. They want to touch all parts of that athletic program, across all sports.”
The two are also working to build synergies in their data products: Elevate’s Insights, a business intelligence and strategy service, and Learfield IMG College’s Fanbase, an on-campus data dashboard that lets athletics departments combine data from their various revenue streams.
Learfield and Elevate aren’t the only ones thinking in this holistic way. Legends recently made its first entry into college multimedia rights, a deal with former Learfield client Georgia Tech that was touted as an all-in-one approach covering data, IP and new commercial opportunities.
Guido and Gahagan began talking about this tie-up long before the Legends deal came together. They said the conversations started back in early 2020, before Gahagan was even formally introduced in his current role.
The two say they’ll be proactive about some of the possibilities, such as naming rights, and will be more targeted on other applications, like construction studies or hospitality sales.
“We want to make sure the market is aware of those services,” Gahagan said, “so that as that consideration arises with a given school, they know that Learfield and Elevate are here to walk them through that journey.”