The NIL world was waiting to see what type of initial splash a company with the reach of Learfield would make in the space.
Learfield, a media and technology leader in college athletics, launched an education platform earlier this year called Compass. In October, it joined with OneTeam Partners to provide opt-in licensing opportunities for athletes to take part in merchandise programs. Last week came the most significant announcement with the unveiling of Learfield Allied, billed as the first nationwide NIL offering that enables brands to pair athletes with university marks and logos.
The Learfield multimedia rights partners that will engage with the Allied launch initially include Duke, Florida State, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, St. John’s, Syracuse, Utah and Wisconsin. Many more will be added to that list.
“It’s smart,” Blake Lawrence, CEO and co-founder of Opendorse, told On3. “Learfield is the leader in college sports marketing. They influence more fans and leaders in schools than anyone else in the space. Some would say Learfield took their time before announcing the first phase of their NIL plan. But I see it as smart because the first few months things were still shaky, trying to figure out who can do what where, when and how. It’s become clear the types of roles companies like Learfield can play. And their solution makes sense; it’s actually very clear to the sponsor community, more clear than anything else in market right now, about how to actively engage with NIL and combine school marks and student-athlete marks.”
On3 caught up Monday with John Brody, Learfield’s chief revenue officer, to discuss the strategy and vision behind Learfield Allied and the direction of the NIL market overall. Some of the Q&A has been slightly edited for clarity, context and brevity.
The dawn of the NIL era
Q: What type of niche does Learfield want to carve out in the NIL space?
Brody: For us, it’s less about carving out a niche. It’s more about, for us as the kind of front door to college athletics and in our position as a leader in the industry, we felt like we had a need to step in and clear some of the tall grass to help schools and brands and, ultimately, student-athletes walk forward and lean into this opportunity. We don’t think this is a sprint; this is a marathon. But what we’ve done over the last few months is done a lot of listening and a lot of watching. We feel like it is important for us, as the leader in the industry or one of the leaders in this industry from a revenue-generation standpoint but also from an intellectual property standpoint and from a connection to brands standpoint … how we go to market is really important. And the number of clients that we have and what they want to do to have access to this potential new opportunity is really important.
Q: The NIL era began July 1. What was the thinking behind waiting four and a half months before this announcement?
Brody: If we went to July and said, “This is our plan,” we didn’t have this plan. We reacted and watched the marketplace, watched the student-athletes, watched the NCAA, watched the state, local and federal government. And we’re trying to, frankly, just put solutions in place that help grow the market. And we think that we’ll do well as the market grows. Yeah, we feel good about our positioning in the market, that we’ll get our fair share, more than our fair share. But ultimately it’s about being a steward for the marketplace.
Q: Take me through what the process entails. Does it start with the brand?
Brody: There is no perfect roadmap. But a scenario could be a brand partner of one of our 190 or so schools comes to us and says, “Hey, I’ve seen this NIL thing. We want to do it the right way. We want to reach out to student-athletes on the male or female side. How should we do it? And, oh, by the way, we really want them wearing a university uniform or sweatsuit or whatever it may be.” The first thing we say is, “Do you have an idea of what you want to do? Do you want it to be a member of the volleyball team? Do you want it to be a group of student-athletes? Do you want it to be male or female, starters or reserves? Contemplate that.” . . .
Then we say, “OK, if you’re interested in doing that, there is an incremental commitment that is needed to unlock these new rights at the school level.” That said, we’ll deal with every situation, and we have guidelines and roadmaps to guide the conversation today and in the future. We talk to the school about it, and the opportunity is created relative to the intellectual property.
And now you want to go to the student, which you may have already done, or you don’t know how to get to the student, here’s how you get to the student. You know, there’s different ways that they can do that, whether that’s through the school, whether that’s through Opendorse or one of the different kinds of marketplaces that we would send them to, and we let them do that with a student-athlete. And then our job would be to bring it all together. We don’t represent the student-athlete. But as the student-athlete, maybe if the student-athlete agrees to and they want to do a photo shoot and things like that, we’ll manage that for the school and for the brand, and the representative of the student, whether it’s his father, mother or agent, can join them, of course, and we will help execute against those elements. That is a very long way of saying how it could and how it has already started to work. But it could be very different than that. That’s kind of the model.
Schools want to support their student-athletes
Q: As you examined the landscape for a few months, was there a particular pain point that you observed that Learfield Allied addresses?
Brody: There was a lack of clarity in the marketplace as to how to go about doing a deal and campaign with a student-athlete. We represent the intellectual property rights of 190 of the top institutions in America. The schools also were looking for assistance, so they can do the thing that I’m going to keep saying until I hear otherwise — support student-athletes. They want to do this to support the student-athletes first, they want to do it so that it is in compliance, they want to make sure that they’re doing it tastefully. … And then they also want to get their fair share relative to the intellectual property. A lot of other folks can add value with student-athletes, add value as a marketing advisor, add value as an agent. But we’re kind of uniquely positioned to help navigate this. And that’s why it took the time that it did. And that’s also why we’re not just quietly saying we’re going to help the schools; we want the marketplace to understand that we’re here to help.
Q: How receptive have schools been?
Brody: The general trend, No. 1, is they want to support their student- athletes, first and foremost. They want to make sure they comply because these are new state or local laws that they don’t have a lot of experience in. So anytime something’s new, you want to make sure that you’re thoughtful and that you understand what you can and can’t do. Because the laws in Texas and the laws in Oklahoma couldn’t be more different. So we help them through that. … But there’s a cautious approach to making sure that they do this the right way with the state and locals. They want to make sure that it makes sense for their school and university, and that they are positioned in a certain way. Just as we do with any execution, they approve it; we have an approval process, so we’re not going to go out and do things that don’t represent the brand of the school or university in the appropriate way. That is not specific to NIL, that’s just generally. And then I think it is how we make sense for the brand.
Q: Do you expect the list of schools to grow considerably?
Brody: Absolutely, because it’s about timing and communication and trust and repetition and listening to the marketplace. We heard overwhelmingly from our schools, from the athletic departments, that they are looking for us to be a partner in this journey. Will 190 sign up over a certain number of days? The goal is to have the service available, to have the opportunity there. Some schools may not choose to have NIL as the leading area of concentration. Some may look at it and be very interested in doing that. I think every school, every situation, every set-up is different. But I’d expect those numbers to grow significantly as we continue to have the conversations. We just wanted to show the marketplace that we can deliver on what is being asked for. Whether it was 12 or 120 the day that we announced it, it’s really, I think, less relevant. It’s more about will the schools see the value in it? And unequivocally they will.
College teams as brands
Q: For the layman fan, how does a university’s intellectual property figure into this and why is it so important?
Brody: There’s history, there’s pageantry, there’s connection, there’s loyalty. … There’s a reason why so many fans and so many alumni and so many students and so many family members go out and buy these T-shirts, these jerseys, these bumper stickers, whatever it may be, because of the value they feel, the connection they feel to the university. That’s undeniable — that is cradle to grave. And that is a brand affiliation that very few properties in sports, entertainment or anywhere in America can assert. … That means the intellectual property is valuable. How one has an association with that property, whether one’s a fan or a brand, has to be managed in an appropriate way. That’s why we license products. That’s why we have sponsorship relationships, so that banks and credit unions, restaurants and soft drinks can associate with this intellectual property. This is the brand that people associate with. … The front of the jersey, we think, is a huge differentiator because, respectfully, to any student-athlete out there . . . their ability to connect nationally, locally or at any kind of mass scale is in some ways connected to the intellectual property of the school. Same reason Clayton Kershaw is a cool dude and amazing baseball player and a Hall of Famer at some point. But him in a Dodgers uniform is different than Clayton Kershaw in the shirt I’m wearing or the sweater you’re wearing. It’s just different. That’s the value of intellectual property. That’s why the schools invest so much to build it, support it, protect it and nurture it.
Q: What have you personally found striking about the first few months of the NIL era?
Brody: I think it is an era. I don’t think it is a short-term opportunity for student-athletes to generate a little revenue and move on to the next. I think this is a new era. What I’ve seen more than anything is the willingness from the schools and the universities to support student-athletes in a new era, in a new way and so completely. I have been extremely impressed at the level of interest from the schools to do this the right way, and to support student-athletes as aggressively as they can. Again, I come from the pro space, where it is a little different. And I’ve just been impressed and pleased to see how focused schools and universities are about supporting their student-athletes.
Q: Do you have a sense yet of the size of the NIL marketplace for athletes? Will there be some leveling off or will the market adjust next summer?
Brody: I think the fact that intelligent and well-versed people like you are calling it things like an “era” and companies like Learfield are creating brands and are putting a significant amount of human capital and time against it reinforces the importance that it has over the long term. Whatever happens year to year, we have models for this, right, in professional sports in the U.S. and around the world. This has been going on for a long period of time. … This is an opportunity that will continue to grow. We have a lot of different smart people inside of our company trying to figure out how big, how vast [the market is], but I’m focused on doing it right. And how we deliver against it will be something that people study for a long time to come. It’s not going anywhere. It will have ebbs and flows. … How big? How vast? How long? How slow? Anyone who says they know is uneducated because there’s no way to know. The only thing that I do believe in is that this is a tremendous opportunity for student-athletes and universities to offer to the marketplace.