Who Is Learfield And Why Are They Making Alabama Richer?
By: Larry Burton
Learfield Sports is the company that Alabama contracts with to provide many services to fans who enjoy sports at the University of Alabama at home, in the car and especially in the various stadiums and sports venues the university is involved in. The provide sports signage, print advertising, television and radio broadcasts and even more media are all controlled by Learfield. They also control other corporate sponsorships. Their other bread and butter is in catering food for venues, sky boxes and “The Zone” at the stadium as well as all the concession contracts. If popcorn is popped at soda poured, or someone is eating, drinking or snacking at a sports venue, you can bet that Learfield had their hands in it.
But then you may not know them or ever see their name at a stadium, because they turn around and sell the rights to soda water and juice pours to Coca Cola, the “isotonic” drinks, those are the sugary sports drinks, well they sold those rights to Gatorade.
In all, it’s a big boy multimillion dollar endeavor that makes both parties to the contract a ton of money. Learfield has been working with the University in these kinds of capacities since 1998 and Alabama has been a happy partner.
No athletic director brought the bucks into Tuscaloosa like Mal Moore did. Though his background was that of a football coach, he was always smart when it came to money and knew how to raise it from both the business world and from donations from alumni. Mal’s agreement with Nike for example, brought in millions. In 2010, Moore finalized a deal with Nike that brought in a 2 million “signing bonus” and an eight year contract that will bring in approximately 3.75 million dollars a year. Not bad for adding a swoosh on a uniform huh?
But if you thought that Moore’s passing meant that Alabama had lost the goose that always laid the golden egg, you don’t know current AD Bill Battle, who has years of experience as a corporate leader selling rights to colleges with his old company, The Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), which Battle founded and was chairman.
If you don’t think he knows how to turn a dollar, he started that business in his home and sold that company to IMG Worldwide for a little over 100 million dollars a few years down the road. Yes, this man knows business, contracts and the sports world.
So when Battle takes over at Alabama and read the contract with Learfield and saw it had an option year in it, he brought Learfield in to renegotiate. Citing that option, Battle expounded the increased visibility and success of the Crimson Tide brand over the last few years and asked to be paid for increase in kind.
What he got was huge payday for the university. Battle negotiated that to keep the contract, Learfield double the yearly payout from approximately 8 million dollars to approximately 16 million dollars a year. The contract will continue on for another 10 years and I’ll bet Battle has another option year built into it about five years down the road. I do know that he also negotiated for additional money if sales surpass certain limits.
So in one fell swoop, Battle brings in another 8 million dollars a year with just the stroke of a pen and an agreement to spruce up the vending areas inside the stadium with upgrades that will include big screen televisions so the folks standing in line for hot dog won’t miss any of the action taking place on the field.
Of course, unknown to Learfield, Alabama was considering doing those improvements anyway and now that the negotiations are over we can say that.
The other thing that is ironic is that Learfield subs out part of that contract to IMG, which bought Battle’s old company. IMG will continue to provide the licensing rights for the university for souvenirs, clothing, apparel and university logos and some other services. This contract brings in millions of dollars a year and the more the Crimson Tide wins, the more T-shirt and logo related merchandise they sell. If you see Alabama merchandise with that holographic tag on it, you know IMG has made a little a money and so has Alabama.
This new agreement with Learfield keeps Alabama the third richest college football program in America. According to the Department of Education, Alabama’s sports department raised approximately 143.5 million dollars last season. With the addition 8 million from this deal alone, this upcoming season could easily bring in 152 million dollars. In relation, number one Texas brought in 167.5 million last year and Notre Dame was thought to have brought in a few million less than Texas. But to Alabama’s credit, both Texas and Notre Dame benefit from having lucrative private network television deals, the Longhorn Network and the Irish’s NBC deal in addition to other television revenues.
With the SEC Network getting ready to start up, Alabama will once again bring in more bucks from that agreement and the gap may be closed between them. But it’s not just more people wanting to see Alabama games on TV, ticket sales are at an all time high and even with a bigger stadium, there’s still a waiting list for people wanting tickets. All those ticket sales bring in trucks full of money.
So you and I may not know where the dollar figures will top out in the seasons to come, but at least now you know some the main players in the game filling that pot of gold.
Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter