Paw Power: Is Clemson’s new radio distribution agreement changing the rules of the game?

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Reba Robinson, vice president of client services & operations of Clemson Sports and Campus Marketing for JMI Sports; Scott Morris, president of Clemson Sports and Campus Marketing for JMI Sports; Ben Milstead, director of operations for WCCP; and Debra Jones, general manager of WCCP. Photo by Will Crooks

In an age when college sports are increasingly national, Clemson University’s athletic program is turning the “bigger is better” paradigm on its head.

Case in point: Rather than rely on a media-rights organization with a big footprint to broadcast Tiger football, baseball, and basketball, the university has signed a new deal with a boutique sports marketing firm, while expanding its relationship with local flagship station WCCP 105.5 The Roar.

“We’re actually not building our own brand. We’re building Clemson’s brand,” said Scott Morris, president of Clemson Sports and Campus Marketing for JMI Sports. In June, his company signed a seven-year, $68 million multimedia and marketing rights partnership with Clemson that’s different from what many other college athletics programs are doing.

A ‘Boutique’ Approach

JMI Sports is headquartered among the palm trees, sand, and surf in San Diego, Calif., far from the rolling foothills and red clay of Upstate South Carolina. But don’t let that fool you. Its portfolio of college properties is tiny by today’s standards. In addition to Clemson, it holds the media and marketing rights for the University of Kentucky, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Ivy League.

The first big news coming out of Clemson’s partnership with JMI Sports came in August, when the sports talk radio station WCCP announced an expansion of its role as Clemson athletics’ flagship station. Starting this season, WCCP began distributing broadcasts to 17 Clemson Tiger Network affiliates across the region, in addition to its historic role of broadcasting football, baseball, and men’s and women’s basketball games.

That’s a change from Clemson athletics’ previous agreement with Learfield, a 1,300-employee, nationwide media rights company that represents close to 130 institutions. Subsequent to Clemson’s deal with JMI Sports, Learfield served as distributor.

“In simplest terms, [Learfield was] Grand Central Station for all [Clemson athletics] broadcasts,” said Ben Milstead, director of operations for WCCP. He said radio broadcasts under Learfield connected first to its hub in Jefferson City, Mo., then back to stations like WCCP. In short, that’s what made Learfield the distributor of Clemson sports broadcasts.

Ben Milstead. Photo by Will Crooks

Under the new agreement with JMI Sports – and WCCP’s role as Clemson’s new distributor – local broadcasts stay local. Milstead said the infrastructure needed to distribute broadcasts led to WCCP investing “around $50,000” to build a newer studio, buy equipment, and hire additional staff.

It’s worth it, Milstead said.

“It’s solidifying Clemson’s brand with ours,” he said. “It’s just a large part of who we are as a station. We are the only sports talk station in South Carolina that has live, local sports talk 13 hours a day. And the majority of that time is spent on Clemson.”

That’s the way JMI Sports wants it. Morris said the company partners with “premier” schools, and places trust in local stakeholders at those schools who know the brand, its audience, and how the two align.

“It’s all about the university, the local engagement,” Morris said. “We have to have an alignment of priorities. [WCCP has] the knowledge and relationships that are necessary to be our partner.”

Amateur Athletics is Big Business

Broadcasting college athletics is big business. Last October, Providence Equity Partners, a private equity firm, sold its stake in Learfield for a reported $1.3 billion – a tidy profit from the stake it purchased for more than $500 million in 2013, the New York Times reported.

Scott Morris. Photo by Will Crooks

It’s getting bigger, too. Learfield and IMG College, two of the biggest names in the college media rights game, are reportedly in negotiations about a merger. If federal regulators approve the deal, the two companies would own an overwhelming majority of media rights for big-name schools. Learfield alone owns the rights of three of the top four-ranked college football teams (No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Penn State, and No. 10 Oklahoma).

One way of managing broadcast rights for college athletics isn’t necessarily better than the other, Morris said. Companies like Learfield and IMG College have one model. JMI is just different.

“We have a very small corporate function,” Morris said. “We put most of our resources at the school. And you can only do that if you work with premier institutions.”

Of course, describing the new JMI Sports, Clemson University, and WCCP partnership as “local” is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, WCCP’s programming is Clemson-centric, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Yes, JMI has an entire team of locals, headquartered in Greenville, that wear orange most days of the week. And, yes, Clemson athletics is wildly popular in the Upstate.

Nor is JMI a small company. It is a major player in a very big game. In addition to its media-rights partnerships, its sports facility development clients include the San Diego Padres and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, for example.

In many ways, the Clemson Tigers have the cachet of a professional team – especially the university’s football team. It is, in short, a national brand already. The key, WCCP officials said, is marrying the idea of Clemson’s status nationally with broadcasts that have a hyper-local focus. That’s the station’s model, and JMI is on board.

“Clemson was looking for a partner that is very boutique and personalized, but as a national brand,” said Debra Jones, WCCP’s general manager. “JMI offers that.”

Debra Jones. Photo by Will Crooks

“The feeling we got from Clemson was that they didn’t want… a cookie-cutter national broadcast,” said Milstead. “They wanted more localized content.”

In Morris, Clemson has an ally at JMI Sports. He bleeds orange. Raised in Rock Hill, he holds a degree from Clemson. The voicemail message on his cellphone ends with “Go Tigers,” a number that, by the way, has an 864 area code. It’s just another way a national company feels smaller than it really is.

“We’re going to take a backset,” Morris said. “We’re in the car, but we want to put our schools front and center. They drive everything. To that end, JMI’s approach is that we’re a bit of a boutique company. We carefully select and target schools in which we work.

“I’m only interested in Clemson.”

Over at WCCP, staff members say little has changed. More importantly, radio listeners won’t notice much of a difference.

“WCCP has been a longstanding affiliate with Clemson University; we are very Clemson-centric,” Milstead said. But the new partnership, he said, supports Clemson’s sports program in ways “that we didn’t have before.”

“There are very few Division I schools in the nation that originate the way we do now. So many schools use Learfield, IMG, and CBS. Few people do what we do on a local level. This is what’s gonna set JMI apart.”

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