Copyright 2014 Charleston Newspapers
Charleston Daily Mail (West Virginia)
Despite an extremely compressed startup timetable, officials at IMG College said their first football season as multimedia partners with West Virginia University athletics surpassed expectations.
In addition to meeting the challenge of building out a statewide radio affiliate network and an expanded slate of gameday programming in less than four weeks, IMG executives said they were able to surpass financial goals for the 2013 football season.
Rex Hough, vice president of business development at IMG, said that through mid-December, the company was projecting to beat its sales goal by 22 to 25 percent.
"At a startup property, that is off the charts," Hough said.
"In my opinion, with the timetable that was in front of us to get the operation up and running . . . our staff and the West Virginia University staff did an unbelievable job to get this thing off the ground for kickoff," Hough said.
On July 11, WVU announced it had entered a 12-year contract to allow North Carolina-based IMG College to manage the athletic department's multimedia rights.
The contract guarantees IMG will pay WVU at least $86.5 million through 2025 to manage the rights.
The deal had been idled for more than seven months after John Raese, owner of West Virginia Radio Corp., which had also bid for the school's multimedia rights, lodged complaints about the process.
Eventually, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey got involved and ordered the contract be rebid after finding the initial bid process tainted by "significant errors and sloppiness."
That meant instead of getting the WVU contract in January, IMG officials had to wait until July to begin the partnership.
"Certainly the timeline was not what the university had sought out to attempt, but it's where everyone ended up," said Joe Potter, senior vice president for media operations at IMG.
Instead of having nearly eight months before football season kicked off to hire staff, recruit sponsors and line up programming, IMG had to do it in a matter of weeks.
Officials said it took an "all-hands-on-deck" effort on the part of IMG's corporate staff in Winston-Salem, WVU staff in Morgantown and representatives working across the state to get WVU football on the air this year.
"Obviously the biggest challenge for us operationally was time," Potter said. It was a big concern of ours, and it was certainly something that we voiced internally.
"But in the end, we came down with the attitude that we would rather be working with West Virginia University in an extremely challenging situation than not working with West Virginia University at all."
One of the first things IMG had to take care of was hiring a local marketing staff in Morgantown.
While IMG has a half-dozen national sales representatives based in New York City, along with five groups of regional sales teams throughout the country, the Morgantown staff would need to deal directly with local sponsors, partners and WVU officials to manage day-to-day operations.
IMG was able to quickly recruit Pittsburgh Steelers marketing and corporate sales manager Mike Egan to be general manager for Mountaineer Sports Marketing.
Hough said Egan had the right blend of experience and regional connections to get IMG's Morgantown operations off the ground.
"Mike has NBA experience, Major League Baseball experience with the Pittsburgh Pirates, NFL experience with the Steelers," Hough said. "He is as well-rounded as you can get; his experience is vast . . . we're really banking on that making this property really successful."
IMG rounded out the staff with two people with close ties to WVU: Todd Knisley, a WVU graduate and former sports marketing intern who worked with IMG at TCU and Marshall, and Matt Allevato, a WVU business administration graduate who had been working with West Virginia Media's WV illustrated.com.
Egan arrived in Morgantown in August. He said he and his team "hit the ground running" to start renewing advertising and sponsorship agreements and to begin the process of bringing new sponsors to the table.
"There was immediacy to making sure we were selling and executing deals," Egan said.
Hough said WVU athletic officials, specifically assistant athletic director for marketing and sales Matt Wells, helped ease the transition with existing sponsors.
"Matt Wells at the university really did a great job in fostering all the partnerships that were there and really had those in a good place for us," Hough said. "We got a lot of that business done quickly once we were awarded the (contract)."
Wells said the university's existing sponsors and partners were very understanding regarding the delays in the multimedia rights bidding process and remained supportive throughout the entire process.
"That really was probably the thing that most helped the relationship with IMG and WVU," Wells said. "Without the support and understanding of our existing sponsors, we would have had more trouble transitioning into this partnership.
"We - both the university and IMG - are very appreciative of their support during the transition," Wells said.
While sales staffers were busy recruiting and re-signing sponsors, IMG programming officials had to make sure there were broadcasts to sponsor.
With West Virginia Radio, which had provided the backbone to WVU's affiliate network for decades, continuing to challenge the WVU-IMG relationship in court, IMG had to completely rebuild WVU's radio broadcast network.
And it had to happen fast.
"We have a team here (at IMG) that usually has a six-month affiliate recruitment process," Potter said. "That had to be a two-to-four-week process."
Potter said recruiting affiliates isn't complicated; it just takes a concentrated effort at building relationships with radio owners and broadcasters.
He said officials began with concentrating along the Interstate 77 and 79 corridors and built out from there.
"It was a yeoman's effort," Potter said.
Chris Ferris, IMG's vice president for audio broadcasting, said the affiliates that jumped on board early on deserved a lot of credit, because IMG was still dealing with questions like who was going to be on the broadcasts and how they were going to be pulled off.
"There were a lot of 'buts' that we said about the pressure that was put on us in the four weeks that we put this together," Ferris said.
"A lot of credit goes to those affiliates," he said. "We could talk about the work that we did and the university did, those (affiliates) did a lot of great work to make sure people could hear the games this year-that does not go without notice from us."
With the question of who will air games coming into place, Ferris said IMG officials had to complete the picture of what they would air.
IMG pledged to expand WVU gameday programming as part of its multimedia rights bid package. The official pre-game show was expanded from one hour to three-and-a-half hours. The post-game show also grew, going from 30 minutes to two hours.
Before figuring out who would anchor those shows, IMG had to first figure out who would serve as the voice of Mountaineer broadcasts.
Tony Caridi, who had been with the original Mountaineer Sports Network since 1987 and had served as radio play-by-play man since 1997, was a West Virginia Radio employee, and West Virginia Radio and IMG were now on opposite sides in a court case.
However, regardless of the situation, officials at WVU and IMG, as well as many fans, wanted Caridi to stay on as WVU's play caller.
"He is one of the best play-by-play broadcasters in the country at doing college radio - he's exceptional," Ferris said.
IMG eventually was able to reach an agreement with Caridi that would allow him to maintain his current jobs at West Virginia Radio, where he manages the company's Pikewood Creative advertising arm and hosts the statewide "Sportsline" radio show and anchor coverage on the new Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG.
The new agreement also called for Caridi to host television coach's shows on West Virginia Media - also a party in West Virginia Radio's lawsuit against WVU's multimedia rights bid process.
While the situation might appear awkward to outsiders, IMG executives said Caridi has navigated it seamlessly.
"Tony has been a consummate professional," Potter said. "He's great, and I think it's been great for everyone involved. We were thrilled to have him part of it, and it's certainly helped operationally."
"He is definitely a jewel in that broadcast," Ferris said, "without question."
In addition to Caridi, IMG also retained color analyst Dwight Wallace and sideline reporter Jed Drenning for game broadcasts.
Former pre-game show host Dale Wolfley and Mountaineer Sports Network reporter Amanda Mazey, wife of WVU baseball coach Randy Mazey, also signed on to contribute to broadcasts.
To help anchor pre- and post-game shows, IMG brought in Jeff Culhane, who had six years of experience with Nebraska's Husker IMG Sports Network. Culhane was the only new member of the broadcast team that had not worked with WVU before.
"Bringing Jeff in was a good breath of fresh air from our standpoint, where he could look at things in a different way," Ferris said. "He did a nice job of jumping in literally a week and a half before the first game."
Ferris said the broadcast team, combined with the affiliate network, delivered a good first-year product for Mountaineer fans.
"We're very pleased with how we ended up with our programming," Ferris said. "I think we put together an excellent broadcast in a short period of time."
With the first football season under its belt, the Mountaineer marketing team is looking forward to having a full year to prepare for the next one.
"Having a full selling season will be very beneficial," Egan said.
Hough said IMG is also focused on bringing in more national companies on as sponsors for WVU.
"What we're excited about is the opportunity to bring some national sponsors on board," Hough said. "We have a list . . . and we've already talked to some of them."
The company was already able to bring national shipping company UPS on as a national sponsor during the last football season.
"One of the first people nationally we added to West Virginia was UPS, which is a huge national client of IMG," Hough said. "Adding UPS (to WVU) was a big deal for us."
IMG's contract with WVU also calls for the university to invest $2.5 million in capital improvements at sports facilities that can also be used for marketing opportunities.
WVU is in the process of negotiating exactly what those improvements will be, and announcements are expected in the coming months.
IMG is also working on expanding its digital and web-based content. That includes the CampusInsiders.com site, an online college sports network that plans to stream 1,700 games over the coming year.
Executives also said WVU's lackluster 4-8 performance in the last football season won't have any effect on how they approach the broadcast or sales season next year.
"We've got to be good regardless of the team's performance," Potter said. "That's something that can never be a part of the equation."
Ferris said they've seen teams around the country go through cycles of good years and bad years, but they know the fan interest stays regardless of where the team is in the cycle.
"The fans are still there whether the team wins or loses because they care," Ferris said. "That's the beauty of a school like WVU: The fans care and they're going to be there - and that always bodes well for what we're trying to accomplish."
Attendance at games may dip, or a school might not sell as many season tickets, but that doesn't matter to IMG. They know the fans will still be watching or following the game in some way.
"The beauty of being a multimedia rights holder for a university," Potter said, "is you have the opportunity to capture the fans in so many places."
Wells said the university is pleased with how the relationship with IMG has progressed so far.
"To get off to such a good start given the timing is a positive thing for the future," Wells said. "I think it will only continue to grow from here now that things are up and running."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-4836.