Fundamentals: Cole Gahagan, Learfield IMG College

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Learfield IMG College President and CEO Cole Gahagan joined Fundamentals with Ian Thomas to chat about the direction of college sports marketing, the effects of COVID-19, and more. 

Gahagan was appointed president and CEO of the college sports marketing company on April 3 and started the conversation by discussing why it went against conventional wisdom and changed its leadership structure amid a global pandemic – explaining there’s downtime in what otherwise would be a hectic portion of the year.

He also discussed the surprising speed at which Learfield and IMG College integrated following a nearly $2 billion merger in December 2018. Other highlights below:

On Learfield IMG College’s future – 4:00: 

Gahagan: “Going forward, we have a responsibility to continue to evolve and move this industry into a new era of opportunity and business growth. And I think that you’ll see a good bit of our efforts to expand beyond just the boundaries of a campus, the traditional boundaries of an arena or a stadium … we have such a terrific opportunity.”

On COVID-19’s effect on the business – 13:00: 

Gahagan: “No matter what you do in the business of sports and entertainment, your business has been unavoidably impacted by what surrounds all of us right now. The next several years are going to be very different relative to what we’ve all known in the modern history of, of sports and entertainment and as a result of that, we’re all pivoting. 

Everybody is having to think about its business differently today than we did 60 days, 90 days ago. So we’re in the same boat that I think every company is out there. The good news for us though, is it hasn’t required us to go and suddenly think of new areas to go invest in or have to drum up new opportunities to go and invest in. 

These were things that we were doing no matter what we were investing in data infrastructure. We’ve already started that in the past year, we were building out our media infrastructure and we were building out our plans to be a really good creative and content-driven and fan-driven media company.

We were already heading down the pathway of digital initiatives to go alongside and sort of augment what we were doing in the traditional marketing space. These were things that we were going to do no matter what. COVID-19 and the sort of climate we find ourselves surrounded by has really sort of put us in a position to accelerate.”

On the balance between traditional college sports marketing and extending beyond the playing field – 16:40: 

Gahagan: “If we’re not careful, we can get caught in a bit of a misconception that traditional sports marketing will go away. And I absolutely don’t think that that’s the case. And that’s why I always talk about the areas in which we’re investing being balanced with traditional sports marketing. And when I say on balance, I mean actually being the core mechanisms that are going to unlock really meaningful growth in the years ahead for the stakeholders in our business and predominantly our university partners and our brand partners.”

On the potential effect of NIL rule changes on the business – 20:30: 

Gahagan: “It’s going to be an impact on our entire college athletics business to be certain. It’s going to have an impact on every member of the ecosystem … an impact across the board.

You know, I think it’s difficult to say with certainty what any of that looks like yet, because as you certainly know, all that happened last week was we had a series of recommendations come down from this year-long study and analysis that was being conducted by the committee.

And now on the heels of that, of those recommendations, we’ve got several months in front of us of further consideration, further discussions amongst the stakeholders in our industry. And we’ll certainly be a part of that. 

When it comes to our outlook on this and, for that matter, our involvement on this over the next several months is not that different from what our involvement has been in the last 12 months, which is continuing to provide information to those that are gonna make the decisions to hopefully put them in a really good position to make good decisions is and not just with our multimedia rights business, which we’ve talked a good bit about this morning.

As it starts to take shape, we’re going to have a responsibility to lean forward and say, Okay, here’s what’s required. Now, here’s the various technologies that we have that can be added to the mix to go in and help all the stakeholders and in this now new landscape and what’s the best way to take that to market in that helpful way.”

How brands might react to being able to work with college athletes – 25:00:

Gahagan: “It’s hard to say. I don’t know how brands are going to think about the allocation of their dollars across a school or property versus an athlete. There is probably a good proxy that’s out there already in the professional sports business and you can get a good sense for the number of brands that continue to invest in sports properties versus those that invest in pro athletes. And what the data tells us and has told us over the last decade plus is that the spends with the properties continues to grow significantly year over year for a number of reasons.”

How fans will come back to sports following COVID-19 – 30:00:

Gahagan: “When that confidence is pretty quickly built amongst fans, that when they go to a game or they go to an arena, that their safety is priority number one, and they’re going to be safe. [When that happens] we’re going to marry two things that matter most.

When you can sort of marry that passion and excitement over the return of life in sports with this reassurance that you’re going to be safe when you’re here. I think the combination of those two things are going to pull fans back to our events pretty quickly.”