Any fan who’s sat at a college football game is likely familiar with the bleacher seat. The often cold (hello, Big Ten), or frequently quite hot (looking at you, SEC) but always unforgiving—especially if you stay for the full three and a half hours, maybe more—aluminum planks plopped down aisle after aisle have long been the college stadium standard.
Their uncomfortable construction eventually birthed an industry of semi-permanent seating solutions, from cushions to temporary seatbacks that fans can lease and have installed for the entire home slate or even a single game. It was a sleepy business that a familiar giant—Learfield—had long dominated, although it now faces increasing competition as the college landscape shifts.
Seating solutions weren’t always in Learfield’s wheelhouse. IMG College Seating started in 1998 and was later integrated into IMG and eventually folded into Learfield upon the merger of the two college sports multi-media rights powerhouses. As in the multi-media rights (MMR) and marketing spaces, Learfield became the biggest player in the business.
Learfield currently provides temporary tush savers to more than 80 of the 130 FBS schools, leasing 600,000 seats to those partners annually. But changing fan habits and competition from a company called 4Topps has chipped away at that market share—a microcosm of the challenges the once undisputed giant faces on many fronts of its business.
“Frankly, I think [the competition from 4Topps] has made us a better company,” said Jake Bye, executive vice president of Learfield Amplify, the silo in which the seating business sits alongside the company’s ticketing and fundraising-focused verticals. “Not that we were complacent, but we had so much market share and had been around for such a long time, it was a bit of a wakeup call. Here’s a group with a different proposition… [It’s] analogous to what’s happening in the MMR space for sure. We realize as a company, complacency is absolutely our worst enemy. We are best-in-class, and we believe that strongly, but it’s up to us to prove that to our partners.”
Seating may seem like small potatoes, but more than half a million seats at anywhere from $50 to nearly $100 a pop at a favorable revenue share quickly becomes an eight-figure revenue stream.
Rental volume and pricing varies by school, with universities setting rental prices based on things like fan demand and renewal rates. (In its contract with Kansas, which Sportico obtained through public records requests, 4Topps suggested pricing seats at “a minimum” of $65 to $80 per bleacher seat per season). Learfield averages just shy of 7,000 rented seats per school, and 4Topps’ rentals peaked at 9,000 at Mississippi State during its first football season with the product in place last fall. 4Topps’ typical revenue share sits around 45% (according to several contracts viewed by Sportico), which generates a revenue average of a few hundred-thousand dollars per school—a smaller return than Learfield often makes in its MMR business, for example, but a sizable source of income when done at scale.
4Topps has added nearly a dozen schools to its NCAA roster, which spans nearly 60 schools across all of its products, since introducing its own bleacher seat in 2021. Many of those partners previously worked with Learfield for semi-permanent seating. While Learfield did not disclose specifics around changes in its seating clients, Bye did confirm it has lost “a few” schools to “new competition in this space.”
“A way we’ve positioned ourselves is if we can engineer better, premium [semi-permanent] seats, that’s a way to improve the fan experience dramatically without the cost of a massive renovation and capital campaign,” Bye said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to preserve clients that way, but business is not about preserving, it’s about growing.”
The latter is just what 4Topps is doing. An intercollegiate athletics company at its core, Learfield has turned to new markets such as golf, horse racing and NASCAR to find that growth as the competition for NCAA clients intensifies.
“College is our fastest area of growth by a comfortable margin,” Deron Nardo, 4Topps president and chief commercial officer, said in an interview. “[Learfield] had a monopoly more or less in the bleacher seat market for a very long time. We learned there was some fairly widespread dissatisfaction with the product out there, and we’re a seating company that designs products based on demand. Now, with our product designed [and] in the marketplace, we’re as optimistic as ever that we’ll continue to take market share.”
But the threat to Learfield’s dominance isn’t only coming from outside players, it’s also a result of internal industry pressures. As the never-ending arms race in college athletics continues, stadium renovations and upgrades to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars are more and more often including seating enhancements and premium offerings that make the need for comfort-focused solutions, at least in college football, increasingly obsolete.
Mesh material that allows for better airflow is the most obvious differentiator between the 4Topps seats and traditional seatback or cushion offerings—helpful in hot climates, especially—but 4Topps’ permanent seating solutions have also become popular in big-time college athletics as part of those very renovations. For example, the company is currently working with Alabama to build a premium seating section for recruits, replacing the club level seats at Clemson, implementing a new premium seating section at FSU where the band once sat (sorry, band) and establishing itself as a consultancy in the new construction and renovation businesses.
And, as schools rethink the setup of their venues and reconsider the need for maximum capacity as attendance declines, 4Topps sees even more of an opportunity to grow its college business. If the temporary bleacher seatbacks get them in the door, their premium products could keep them there as college fandom continues to evolve.
The two competitors also coexist at a number of venues, where Learfield, say, handles the temporary seating and 4Topps’ permanent products, like its eponymous four-top stadium table, exist elsewhere in premium seating sections of the stadium. Coexisting might be the new normal for Learfield on all fronts—whether that’s alongside new challengers like Playfly in the flashier MMR space or 4Topps in something as nondescript as seating.