George Pyne is an unlikely candidate to take the business of college sports to new heights — or depths, depending on your perspective. He grew up in Milford, studied political science at Brown University, then went to work at his family’s construction company.
But on his unusual path to becoming president of IMG Sports and Entertainment, Pyne developed a skill that just might enable him to commercialize amateur athletics on a level that rivals the pros: a willingness to challenge the status quo, even when it meant confronting his own father.
“I criticized my dad,” Pyne said, recalling that his first task after graduating from Brown in 1989 was to rescue the construction business from massive debt. “I said, ‘Dad, you don’t think things through. You have no strategy. You don’t have a plan.’ ”
At IMG, Pyne most definitely has a plan. A giant in the world of professional athlete representation and sports marketing, the New York-based company had no collegiate presence when Pyne arrived in 2006. Today, a new division called IMG College — formed by the acquisitions of three other companies — generates more than $500 million in annual revenues.
In December, the Sports Business Journal named Pyne the 14th most influential person in sports business. On the list, he trailed only professional league commissioners and team owners, and television network executives.
Pyne, who spoke at Harvard Business School last week, said his vision is to sell college sports “brands” more like their professional counterparts. That has meant venturing beyond old standbys, like signage at stadiums and advertising time on broadcasts, to offer the kinds of marketing packages that sponsors are accustomed to buying from the pro sports industry — complete with sideline passes, tickets that can be used for business networking, and rights to use team logos.
“What we’re trying to sell is integrated marketing concepts that connect with a person in a way that’s different than just seeing an ad,” Pyne said in an interview. “When you can create an emotional connection with someone and influence their behavior, that’s far more valuable.”
Athletic departments from Boston College to Florida State University have embraced the strategy, and it’s easy to understand why. IMG promises schools more money than they have earned in the past and charges nothing for its services.
“It pays for our future,” said Diana Sabau, senior associate athletic director for strategic communications at Ohio State University.
This year, IMG will pay Ohio State $9.8 million for radio and television broadcast rights, and licenses to run gameday promotions, hospitality events, and corporate partner programs, among other services. A 10-year deal guarantees $107 million for the university.
IMG earns its money by exceeding the guarantees it makes to athletic departments and keeping the overflows. No revenue stream is too small: For some schools, IMG sells everything from TV broadcast rights to advertising space on stadium parking passes. At certain thresholds, profit-sharing arrangements kick in.
Florida State collects about $6 million per year from its contract with IMG and has added new national sponsors since signing the deal in 2007.
“We had a number of rights holders before IMG came into our world, and we were not where we are now,” said Jason Dennard, Florida State’s assistant athletic director for marketing. “They’ve elevated us tremendously. The network they have is just so much better.”
IMG College boasts partnerships with 74 Division I colleges, seven conferences, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, giving it heavy clout when approaching prospective sponsors.
BC — whose football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey games are broadcast on the IMG Sports Radio Network — benefited last year when IMG signed a national deal with Hyundai, said Jamie DiLoreto, BC’s associate athletic director for external operations.
BC, a private college, declined to share financial terms of its arrangement with IMG.
Duke University, another private school, also would not say how much its deal with IMG pays. But Mike Sobb, Duke’s associate athletic director for external affairs, said one of the partnership’s best features is predictable income — something the athletic department did not enjoy when he was in charge of selling sponsorships for 20 years.
“To have guaranteed revenue coming in, instead of doing it ourselves — it’s been great for us,” Sobb said.
At most of its partner schools, IMG stations sales and promotional staff on or near campuses to promote integration with the athletic departments they serve. At BC, for instance, an IMG employee has an office in Conte Forum.
Such coziness worries some educators, who fear the infiltration of commercialism is compromising schools’ academic missions.
“When schools build expensive athletic facilities and can’t afford to build academic facilities, that trade-off from commercialization is a problem,” said Nathan Tublitz, a biology professor at the University of Oregon (an IMG client) and cochairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty group.
“There are ethical questions to consider whenever you accept corporate dollars,” he said. “Universities are not businesses, in the traditional sense: We don’t have customers; we don’t have clients. We’re places for critical thinking.”
But the economic realities of college sports make corporate dollars necessary, said Greg Brown, president of Learfield Communications in Plano, Texas, which occasionally competes with IMG for athletic department contracts.
“Balance is important, in terms of not overcommercializing college sports,” Brown said. “But as a practical matter, it is extraordinarily expensive to fund 30 athletic programs. Athletic departments have to find ways to monetize what they do. They don’t have much choice.”
A study published in January by the Delta Cost Project, a higher education spending watchdog, found that only one-quarter of Division I athletic departments are profitable or even self-sustaining. At most schools, spending on coaches, facilities, travel, and other expenses outpaces revenues. Other studies in recent years have reached similar conclusions.
As Pyne sees it, the business of college sports still lags far behind the pros.
He says overcommercialization is a nonissue right now, though “it’d be a really nice problem to have.” If IMG College is successful enough to make it an issue, Pyne won’t lose sleep.
“At the end of the day, universities will make those decisions,” he said. “We’re a service provider.”
The reach of IMG College
Generates $500 million in revenues from agreements with 74 Division I colleges, 7 athletic conferences, and the NCAA.
AMONG ITS CLIENTS:
Boston College football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey games are broadcast on the IMG Sports Radio Network. Terms not disclosed.
A 10-year deal guarantees Ohio State $107 million for radio and TV broadcast rights and other services.
Since 2007, Florida State has collected about $6 million per year from IMG.Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.