For the first four months of the college NIL era, Learfield has stayed largely on the sidelines. Now the college multimedia rights giant is wading deeper into the budding industry.
Learfield is launching an initiative to let brands use school marks and logos in deals with athletes, a pairing that is forbidden in all of its current contracts with college sponsors. The new program, called Learfield Allied, could open the door for more comprehensive partnerships with athletes that include school IP.
It’s a change that is both small for Learfield and potentially large for the industry as a whole. School partners who opt into the program will approve a series of new guidelines and updated rate cards for brands. Learfield will then make the option to include university intellectual property in NIL deals available to advertisers, from local car dealerships all the way through global sponsors like Allstate and Nissan. Companies who want to do these deals will agree to mandatory spending minimums.
“Brands will continue to be at liberty to do deals in whatever fashion they see fit,” Learfield CEO Cole Gahagan said in an interview. “This is solely about the opportunity for brands, should they elect to do so, to include university marks in association with those deals.”
Because of the state-by-state (and often school-by-school) approach to NIL, Learfield cannot offer this new program nationwide. In Texas, Oklahoma and South Carolina, for example, the laws don’t allow it. Gahagan said the program will be available “in a majority” of the country.
Learfield works with thousands of brands and represents multimedia rights for more than 150 schools and conferences. Nine of them, including Duke, Florida, Kansas and Wisconsin, have already signed on.
“Our athletic department is deeply committed to helping our student-athletes and corporate partners maximize opportunities in this space,” Wisconsin AD Chris McIntosh said in a statement. “This new initiative will greatly help.”
Learfield will not be negotiating deals directly with athletes, at least not yet. Under this new program, brands will have to source athletes and handle all negotiations separately. They will likely do that in partnership with an agency or through the many different deal-making platforms currently operating. That said, it’s not unreasonable to think greater Learfield involvement may come down the road.
The company already occupies the nexus of school and brand, and could at some point extend that to the athletes themselves. Learfield has also already started making other inroads into NIL: Earlier this year Learfield-owned CLC launched Compass, an education, disclosure and compliance tool for athletes. In October, it teamed up with OneTeam Partners on a national NIL platform where athletes access new opt-in licensing and merchandising opportunities.
When asked about the possibility of Learfield negotiating with athletes in the future, Gahagan said it “is not something we are focused on right now.”
But he added, “If it’s determined down the line that there’s something that we can do that further assists the stakeholders in the ecosystem, we certainly would consider it.”
To date, the vast majority of NIL partnerships have been smaller in scope and without jerseys or logos. Even national campaigns have been absent of school IP thus far. For example, Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who partnered with Dr Pepper this summer, appears in a national ad campaign for the soda company in a plain orange jersey featuring only his number.
The inclusion of school IP has been limited to group licensing agreements struck between facilitators (on behalf of the athletes) and the universities—though few products with school marks have resulted from those deals to date.
“NIL is a very tricky space,” said Dan Keats, director of sponsorship and consumer engagement for Allstate, which has worked with Learfield for nearly two decades. “There are a lot of legal nuances, but with this offering, it’s an ease-of-use scenario. And being able to put [athletes] in their uniform in our marketing programs is a huge advantage, and quite frankly a differentiator.”
Learfield’s sheer size is the result of a 2018 merger between the two biggest companies in college sports deal-making: Atairos-backed Learfield and IMG College, a unit of Endeavor (NYSE: EDR). The group recently raised $242 million from existing investors to support its business in the near term.
Learfield does many different things—data analytics, ticketing, publishing, concessions expertise—but the core of its business is working with schools to monetize their rights. Learfield believes this new program will help maximize that value.
“We would certainly argue that the opportunity to pair with an institution’s marks and intellectual property with possible partnerships with student athletes absolutely allows for brand partners to increase the value of their own campaigns,” Gahagan said. “And like any good or service, if the value goes up, so too does the price associated with it.”