The story of Learfield’s aggressive growth in college athletics over the past decade is a key arch of increased revenues for its partners and an ever-improving student-athlete experience. Andy Rawlings has served as Learfield’s Executive Vice President & Chief Revenue Officer since January of 2014. Following is an extended excerpt from a conversation with Rawlings on the topics of the changing revenue landscape, the acquisition of talent, areas primed to receive more investment from sponsors, the frequently-asked question of ROI, leveraging data, opportunities the company declined several years ago and much more.
As Learfield has grown over the years, how has your approach to revenue generation changed? What do you spend more time on now that you didn’t five or 10 years ago?
We’ve seen significant changes in the collegiate sports space. Sponsor brands and clients are more sophisticated, and the ways fans consume events and games have altered the fan experience. There are more competitive choices now for nearly every fan and client.
Despite the changes, we’re still a get-out-and-see-people business. We talk a lot internally about having a ‘clients-first’ mentality, so everything we do and every perspective we take are first from the clients’ eyes.(Clients for us refer to both the university partner and the sponsor brand). It’s a result of a lot of learning over time and adapting to the changing market.
We offer national brands more now than ever before. We provide a relationship and an experience with fans 365 days a year. Individual professional sports properties can’t do that. When we represent a college, we have all of the sports from football and men’s and women’s basketball to baseball, volleyball, etc. We enable storytelling and stretch out the fan experience across technologies throughout the entire year.
Another key change is the use of intellectual property to package into deals and produce additional revenue. We have an entire Integrated Marketing team led by Keisha Taylor that strategizes around IP. They’re like an in-house agency to help our brands maximize their investment through the use of fight songs, logos and marks. They help brands in retail plug into college traditions and iconography. It’s something unique that we can offer to brands.
We also provide more solutions for our school partners. These include technology solutions through SIDEARM; ticketing through Paciolan; interactive media boards with ANC and concessions with Levy. We customize solutions to help our partners take care of fans and generate revenue. We continually explore synergies and how to make these different businesses work together for the benefit of fans, brands and schools.
We’re placing an enormous emphasis on hiring great people. If you ask anybody on my team, they would say, ‘Man, he’s always talking about clients first, clients first, clients first.’ Being ‘client first’ necessitates having the right people on our team. That’s more challenging than ever. We’re always looking for good people. Talent with a client-first approach drives revenue.
You noted how sponsors and advertisers are becoming more sophisticated. We read and talk a lot about the “fan experience,” which is clearly a focal point for Athletic Directors and their external departments given the trend lines of attendance. But, how does Learfield think about the “sponsor experience” and how to thoroughly understand what moves a partner brand to ensure the right execution is created?
From a business standpoint, a lot of our success is the result of good old-fashioned listening, research, marketing and sales acumen. It starts with listening to what moves our partners. We don’t sell sponsorships. We help clients achieve their objectives.
If we have a multi-year deal, we activate and create experiences that go beyond six or seven Saturdays in a football season. We have the opportunity to evaluate all the time. What’s working? What’s not? How can we adjust? We’re successful when a plan aligns with a brand’s goals and KPIs.
We want to highlight what’s special about a sponsor brand and what it’s trying to convey. We also want to bring out the brand’s personality and story. There are some really big brands doing some really cool things. We work with AT&T to execute collegiate solutions across technology, telecommunications, content and cybersecurity. Anheuser-Busch has creative programming that’s second to none. We encourage them and others to take what they’re doing on other platforms and extend those to the college space. They have a number of competitive choices to make to achieve their desired results. Few options, however, are as fun, unique and visible as college football. College sports ought to be fun. If it’s not interesting, if it’s not fun, fans will spit it out.
We also know the plan has to be, to a degree, measurable and trackable. At the brand level, there are very smart people involved who are under a lot of pressure to deliver results within their organizations. For a sponsorship in the collegiate space, we can take several different measurements and KPIs, both qualitative and quantitative, to evaluate how the platform performs. That’s part of the change in sophistication.
Continuing on that theme, it seems like we’re going on over a decade of pointing to data as a key differentiator for departments, brands & properties. How do you think about leveraging data for the benefit of sponsors & fans alike? What specific examples would you point to where data has been essential to an input (getting a deal done) or output (performance of a partnership)?
Let me start at the partnership level and then I’ll transition into the enterprise level. At the partnership level, I don’t think there should be a one-size-fits-all, black box ROI calculator. I don’t think it’s like Nielsen or Arbitron ratings. Those measurement tools don’t make sense for this fully integrated, immersive, creative, multi-dimensional, multi-element sponsorship that we design differently for every single client. But, I also think the days of saying we’re not measured media are also over. We have to have a dialogue with the client that builds some kind of expectation and evaluation mechanism for that specific client and that specific platform.
I like the concept of, ‘return for client.’ The point is, our plans need to be responsive to client objectives. They need to be smart-goal specific, measurable, aggressive, yet achievable, relative and time-bound. They need to be all of those things, and we have to agree with the client on how it’s going to be done. Stacks of data and numbers are useless unless they align with client goals. The data is out there, and we work hard to pull it and use it in a responsible way. It’s like handling nitroglycerin. You can have a whole bunch of data. If you don’t use it correctly, it can blow up in your face.
The concept of ‘return for client’ is important and the business intelligence team we’re building, which is led by Jeff Gosey, whom we hired six months ago from the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s done this work before. His right hand is Alfred Vaca, who was with the Miami Dolphins. We’re borrowing from the professional space a little bit to help build this business intelligence arm for us. We call it sales acceleration, but their job is to help us figure out how to determine and evaluate client needs. How do we predict the performance of a sponsorship for clients? What is the return for client? What should we all expect and did it work or not? The marriage of the software and human element is the future.
At a higher level, the sales acceleration team has the ability to identify a partner who may have a hospital deal that’s a fraction of the size of other hospital deals we’re seeing across the country. Or, maybe there’s a gap in the healthcare, financial services or QSR categories. We can use data from different properties to help fill the gaps and help monetize and generate more revenue for the school. So that’s another way that we’ll use it.
There’s so much we know about our partners’ fans. Using Mogo’s Fan Extender, we know how they’re interacting and where they’re interacting. We can use that data to create experiences that happen in a particular way. So we can tell sponsors, ‘We know exactly who the fans are, their purchase behaviors, other behaviors, affinity’ and other useful information. It’s a big opportunity to use our data to build a profile of fans to deliver them something interesting, to create and promote a unique experience.
Let’s close with a question on the popular business management adage of knowing what opportunities to say “no” to. As you think about your tenure at Learfield, which revenue opportunities are you glad the company didn’t pursue?
A few come to mind. We successfully avoided massive gambles on linear TV models a few years ago. It would not have fit well at the time for what our primary business was. Instead, we helped some schools do other things in lieu of the linear TV channel. Those include Cyclones.tv at Iowa State, K-State HDTV and the Sooner Channel. We’ve got great relationships and agreements with FOX and with Fox Sports Southwest for Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Those models will continue to evolve as we work with our school clients.
We dabbled in naming rights but backed off after a brief time. When the recession hit, those kinds of deals started to disappear. Today, naming rights are packaged much differently. They’re much more valuable when the naming rights partner is deeply integrated with the university, not just the athletic department. That’s where we see some synergies with Campus+. We’re grateful we didn’t really pursue naming rights until we were ready with the key Campus+ piece.