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Learfield expanding its licensing-driven Compass app to NIL dealmaking

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos06/10/24


As institutions around college sports begin to tackle revenue-sharing questions before the model takes hold, Learfield is making a bold move.

The multimedia rights holder for nearly 100 Division I athletic programs has leaned on Opendorse since the inception of NIL as its marketplace provider, using it to steer brands to pitch and compensate athletes.

Now Learfield is entering the dealmaking business with its own software. Compass, which has been primarily used as the athlete opt-in platform for major licensing campaigns like Fanatics and EA Sports College Football 25, is turning into a dealmaking platform. 

Compass NIL already has 30,000 athletes onboarded from previous activations. Learfield plans to exclusively integrate its 12,000 brand partners onto the platform to create a simple connection between brands and institutions’ athletes. The move from the marketing and tech giant comes at a moment when more dollars are flowing to players than ever before.

“We’ve been, if not the most active organization in NIL since it started, certainly one of the most active businesses in NIL,” Learfield president and CEO Cole Gahagan said in a conference call last week. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement for me to say that this is probably the biggest, most meaningful step that we’ve taken in the NIL era.

“Launching a platform brings school brand partners at the local, regional and national levels into one system to be used by sellers and the student-athletes themselves to create more deal activity. Not just the mere fact about what’s being introduced, but also that it’s being introduced at this inflection point of student-athlete compensation and NIL activity.”

Learfield said Compass will be capable of handling every step of the dealmaking process, from the payment process, including providing 1099s, to ensuring services are completed. Learfield is developing a searchable database for athletes to connect with brands, too. Brands signing deals with athletes on Compass will pay Learfield a 2% fulfillment fee, however, athletes will not pay any fees. School partners won’t be charged for access to Compass NIL.

Outside revenue sources will be crucial in post-House world

As schools begin homework if they opt-in to revenue sharing in the wake of the multibillion-dollar House settlement, it’s become clear corporate deals will be increasingly important to provide new revenue sources. Schools that do opt-in to the revenue-sharing agreement will share roughly $20 million per year with players.

Just last week, the NCAA approved a policy change to allow schools to place corporate logos in the middle of their football fields – a development in direct response to the need to find new revenue streams in the aftermath of the House v. NCAA settlement agreement.

The international sports marketing agency Two Circles also launched a college division last week, tapping Nick Garner, the chief executive officer at the Missouri-centric Every True Tiger Foundation, to lead its NIL prospects. Plans are to assist with setting up marketing agencies on campuses nationwide to help universities activate revenue sharing. That could mean promoting the institution on social media or another type of activation.

With Learfield creating Compass NIL, it only emphasizes the changing landscape of college sports. The move comes eight months after Learfield reduced its outstanding debt by over $600 million while securing $150 million in new equity investment.

“We know our platform can manage that volume is because that’s the type of volume that we deal with on a daily basis on the licensing side of the business, where we have 800 schools, 5,000 licensees, hundreds of thousands of retailers that all transacting and reporting in a platform,” added Cory Moss, CEO of Learfield’s Collegiate Licensing Company. “We just knew that we can handle that type of scale.”

A key reason why Learfield is bringing dealmaking in-house and building out Compass is for the oversight and visibility of high-profile financial commitments made by brands. Learfield will also have access to its own data and insights. This year alone, according to a release, the company has driven more than $13.6 million of cash and trade value to athletes.

“The accountability has never been higher than ever before related to owning the deal-making process from beginning to end on our platform,” said Solly Fulp, Learfield’s executive vice president of NIL. “Our efficiency on dealmaking needs to be faster than ever with our people. So we have to have a platform that’s designed for them on the dealmaking process because our schools are holding us accountable to making sure that we’re integrating the NIL conversation into every brand conversation.”

Compass launched with possibility of revenue distribution

Gahagan said that in the future Compass could be capable of providing the tech to assist with revenue sharing and the distribution of dollars to athletes. A source emphasized to On3 that Compass NIL is being launched with revenue-sharing in mind, specifically when it comes to building out solutions for schools. Learfield plans to continue its partnership with Opendorse until June 2025.

Learfield launched its Allied program in the summer of 2021, having national and local companies leverage institutions’ intellectual property in marketing campaigns while including athletes. Notable campaigns included Postmates at Texas and Chipotle with Ohio State football players. On-campus properties will continue to play a role in the dealmaking process.

The new, revamped Compass will open to Learfield properties on August 1. Alabama, Colorado State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are already using the platform.

“From our view, this marriage of resources on the ground with the first-ever platform that is integrated with brands that are already participating in marketing campaigns with schools, the combination of those two things is going to meaningful accelerate NIL dealmaking activity,” Gahagan said.