June 27, 2012
By Jack Bogaczyk
HUNTINGTON – In the 20,000 leagues of alphabet soup in which college athletics floats – there’s NCAA, SEC, FBS, UCLA, MEAC, UNLV, BYU, ACC … we could go on – one of the major players is IMG College.
Not that most fans know that, although Thundering Herd Athletics has one of the longest relationships of any program with the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company.
IMG College is the multimedia rights-holder of more than 70 collegiate properties, including about 60 schools within the Football Bowl Subdivision. The company has relationships with nine of the 12 SEC schools, eight of 12 ACC teams and nine Conference USA members, including Marshall.
“IMG College is the exclusive marketing, advertising and sponsorship arm for Marshall University athletics,” said Jason Golden, the IMG College/Marshall general manager who heads a five-person Huntington-based staff from MU’s Shewey Building. “Any element that has to do with any of those would be handled by and channeled through us.”
Golden acknowledged that there’s some confusion among Herd fans and potential sponsors about exactly what the company is and what it does. He said many Herd supporters are familiar with ISP (International Sports Properties).
“It’s simple. IMG is the ‘old’ ISP,” Golden said. “We do the same things but now giving schools a slice of national sponsorship deals as well as the potential to add services like ticketing and licensing representation. In fact, all of us on staff here worked for ISP and it just kind of transitioned over.”
IMG College purchased ISP in the summer of 2010 – about six months after Golden moved to Marshall from the ISP property at UNLV, where he also worked closely with then- Rebels’ Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, now at Marshall.
Thundering Herd IMG Sports Marketing dates to 1998, when Marshall followed Wake Forest and Virginia Tech into the fold of what was then International Sports Properties (ISP).
The current Marshall contract with IMG College runs through the 2020-21 school year, a 10-year deal at seven figures annually … and it makes money and saves money for the Herd, which in the deal grants its available multimedia rights (outside the C-USA primary telecast packages) to IMG College.
“In doing so, we pay a guarantee rights fee, regardless of what our annual sales may or may not be, and then there also are parameters in there for additional dollars to be shared as sales are made,” Golden said.
He said it would be accurate to consider Marshall as one of the “most successful non-BCS schools in the portfolio or IMG College family,” and the Marshall wing of IMG College has about 200 corporate sponsors involved, most in multisport agreements.
And in another indicator of the rise in interest in the Herd program that has been seen through other prisms like the recent Big Green Coaches Tour, Golden said Thundering Herd IMG Sports Marketing sponsorship revenues have increased approximately 20 percent in the three years since Hamrick returned to his alma mater as AD.
The Thundering Herd IMG Sports Network – that’s the home of longtime Marshall “Voice” Steve Cotton – has around 20 affiliates for football. Huntington’s WDGG (93.7 FM) and WRVC (930 AM) remain the flagship stations, but Golden said a return to Bristol Broadcasting in the Kanawha Valley on WVTS (94.5 FM, 1240 AM) through a multiyear deal will pay dividends promotionally for the Herd.
The men’s basketball schedule and weekly coaches’ shows for Doc Holliday and Tom Herrion are in about 17-18 markets.
But there’s much more that IMG College does for Marshall than buy airtime and produce a radio network.
“It’s all about helping to build the school’s brand through sponsorship and creating more intimate connections with fans,” Golden said. “Some examples are in-venue signage, the scoreboard, ribbon board, LED signage advertisement and static signage on the stadium and arena walls. We handle the Thundering Herd IMG Sports Network, live game day broadcasts and coaches’ shows.
“We handle all of the print advertising, do game day programs and publications, and also control advertising opportunities for Marshall’s athletics official website, HerdZone.com.
“We also control game day opportunities for setups and displays and promotional booths, and from a commercial standpoint, control logo and marks usage. If a company, say, wants to align itself with the “block M,” that partnership goes through us as well.”
For the 2012 football season, Thundering Herd IMG Sports will produce a first-time, 32-page fan guide to be distributed with MU’s football season-ticket mailing. Golden said it is another chance to improve the product for Herd fans and sponsors.
“In the past, the information we put out with season tickets just wasn’t a very efficient or refined way of delivering the message,” Golden said. “With your season-ticket sheet and parking pass, we’d send out 6-8-10 pieces of paper with information, coupons from sponsors.
“Now, there will be a guide that we think is more valuable, something those fans can hang onto in their glove box. It will still have coupons in it, but it will be more organized, obviously, and something they can keep handy all year long, we hope. It’s just a better piece for season ticket holders and sponsors.”
There has been a lot of talk in the state recently about “third-tier rights,” with West Virginia University’s move to the Big 12 Conference, and the Mountaineers putting those rights out for prospective bid.
IMG College contractually owns Marshall’s third-tier rights, and what WVU has put on the street is its multimedia package, not just TV rights after the Big 12 league deals.
As part of that package for the Herd, IMG College gets Marshall’s telecast rights after the Conference USA contract selections (three levels for football, Fox, CBS Sports Network, Comcast) are fulfilled.
Golden said his group “is still working with our conference partners on the opportunity to televise Marshall games” in 2012-13.
Meanwhile, the GM of Thundering Herd IMG Sports Marketing concedes there is no small amount on misunderstanding about what IMG College is and does.
“Two things,” Golden said. “A lot of times we’re confused with the marketing department of Marshall Athletics (led by associate AD for external affairs and ticket manager Aaron Goebbel). People think we are purchasing ad time on TV or purchasing ad time on billboards, driving season ticket sales, or placing advertising in newspapers. We don’t do that.
“Our responsibility is not to necessarily market the program, although we help Aaron spread the word. For us, the main charge is revenue generation for the athletic department.
“The other thing people confuse us with is the Big Green (Scholarship Foundation).
“Many times we’ll call and solicit someone … ‘Hey, we’d love to come out and visit to see if you’d like to become a corporate partner or sponsor,’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, I already do that. I’m in the Big Green.’ And that’s a great thing, no doubt, but it’s a very different piece there.
“The Big Green is a philanthropic organization, and you’re giving a donation, and in turn in many instances, receiving better access, better seat locations, the things that come with being a Big Green member.
Our charge is revenue generation, but ours is through advertising, sponsorship, marketing opportunities to help companies that partner with us to build their brand, raise name recognition, those sorts of things.
“There are times we need to educate that we are not the Big Green and we’re not looking for donations. This is not a donation. This should be part of (a corporate sponsor’s) marketing and advertising plan to reach the thousands and thousands of passionate Herd fans that we can put their name in front of.”
The video board that made its debut last season at Edwards Stadium (and ribbon boards at the stadium and in the Henderson Center) was part of a $3.5 million commitment to enhance fan experience by Thundering Herd ISP Sports Marketing.
The focus has turned somewhat to outside the stadium in game days, too.
“We’re always trying to make the tailgate and fan experience better,” Golden said. “We’re hoping to continue to work on and enhance non-traditional advertising and marketing assets that allow corporate partners to reach out and be associated with Marshall fans in a more intimate way.
“That kind of thing is kind of important to the sponsors, because they’re trying to cut through the clutter, but it also becomes better for the fan, because there are promotions with prizes, unique trips, or tickets, etc., all these kind of things Marshall fans can take advantage of.”
Meanwhile, the Herd teams have the summer off – so to speak – before the 2012-13 school year. It’s anything but vacation time in the Thundering Herd IMG Sports Marketing offices … perhaps another misconception, no?
“People always ask, ‘Well, what do you do in the summer?’” Golden said, smiling at the thought. “By far, it’s our busiest, most intense time. Once basketball season is over, and I do mean immediately, we begin calling, visiting with prospective clients.
“April 1-Aug. 1 is extremely busy for us, a very healthy selling season for us. Once we get to Aug. 1, then it’s kind of now we have to fulfill what we say we’re going to do.
“The next 60 days will determine our financial success this year at Marshall. That’s how this business works.”