VCU scores $20M media rights deal

©2014 Scott K. Brown Photography, Inc.

Media rights abound at VCU basketball games with brand rights sold on the hoops, the sidelines and elsewhere. Image courtesy of Scott K. Brown Photography, Inc.

The Rams just got richer.

VCU Athletics earlier this month secured a multimedia rights deal with Texas-based Learfield Sports that guarantees the university more than $20 million in sponsorship revenue over the next 10 years.

The partnership puts Learfield in charge of all aspects of the Rams’ athletic media rights, including signage, digital, corporate sponsorships, television and radio play-by-play, and coaches’ radio shows.

Ed McLaughlin, VCU’s athletic director, said the deal will increase sponsorship sales by as much as $200,000 to $250,000 per year while also cutting expenses of handling sales in-house.

Ed McLaughlin

Ed McLaughlin

“All those are expenses are gone, so it’s all net positive for us,” McLaughlin said. “We had done a really good job of it, but we were approached by two companies about going in this direction, and the guaranteed revenue is very attractive for us. The offers that were made were offers we could not refuse.”

VCU Athletics had issued a request for proposals that led to the deal. Steve Gowan, a senior vice president with Learfield, said the company had been tracking VCU for years and jumped at the opportunity.

“The VCU product obviously is very strong in the Richmond market, the general vicinity of Richmond and even beyond now with the success of the recent years in the sports programs,” he said. “There are going to be corporations who are going to want to attach to that affinity. They feel that’s a good place to be to help support something that’s a mainstay of the fiber of Richmond.”

Learfield will also handle intellectual property rights, such as the use of trademarks and logos in promotional activities for higher-paying sponsors. And beyond the traditional signs on scoreboards and other types of sponsorships that fans are used to seeing, Gowan said Learfield goes a step further with interactivity and engagement with fans.

“Corporations these days want to really be interactive with the customer, which is the VCU constituency, whether it be students, faculty, fans, alums or donors,” Gowan said. “And those brands may lead to other things. There may be social media opportunities that we’ll explore; there’s interactivity with folks who come to games in the concourses.”

Some of its big sponsors are Nationwide Insurance, McDonald’s, VCU Medical Center,
Virginia Lottery and Martin’s.

As part of the deal, Learfield has established a local LLC called VCU Sports Properties that will work with the athletic department on a daily basis. The group will be led by General Manager Robby Robinson, familiar to VCU fans as the “Voice of the Rams.” Robinson is joining Learfield after about seven years with VCU Athletics, most recently as its senior associate athletic director of external affairs.

Robby Robinson

Robby Robinson

“The role is going to be very similar to what I’ve been doing, just officially under a different masthead,” Robinson said. “My office is going to stay the same, my access to the folks at VCU is going to stay the same, and what we’re going to be out looking for with sponsorships is going to stay the same, if not grow.”

With Learfield, Gowan said VCU Sports Properties will have access to the company’s 40 years’ worth of experience and resources such as research metrics, training and back office support.

“VCU is extremely fortunate that Learfield set their sights on us, because to be inside their portfolio of schools means a whole lot, especially when you look at all the teams they have,” he said. “We’re on the same team as North Carolina, NC State, Alabama, Texas A&M. Those are big-time schools to be wrapped up with.”

Other Atlantic 10 Conference members with individual rights agreements with Learfield include the University of Massachusetts, the University of Rhode Island, St. Louis University and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

About a year in the making, the deal comes as VCU is also seeking to trademark one of its brand words, “Havoc,” variations of which the University of Texas had initially sought to trademark after hiring the man who made it famous: former VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart.

While Texas is no longer pursuing that effort, McLaughlin said “Havoc” is unrelated to the Learfield deal, which he said covers the use of such words but does not involve development of logos or brands.

“The Havoc thing didn’t play into this at all,” McLaughlin said. “Our national success across the board is really what helped get a very attractive offer for us.

The revenue from the Learfield deal adds to an annual budget for VCU Athletics that reached $28.5 million for fiscal year 2015.

“The guaranteed revenue is a really good business decision for us. It was more than what we were doing, and we’ve had a lot of success,” McLaughlin said. “The guaranteed revenue really blew us away and made this an easy decision.”

The 10-year deal will start with the 2015-16 collegiate athletic season and run through the 2024-25 season.

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