Learfield’s Bleacher Seat competition reflects changes in college sports – Sportico.com

Every fan who has sat down to a match is probably familiar with the bleach seat. Often cold (hello, Big Ten) or often quite hot (I see you, SEC), but always relentless – especially if you stay for three and a half hours, maybe more – aluminum boards, cracked on a trail after a trail, have long been the standard. at the college stadium.

Their awkward construction eventually gave birth to an industry of semi-permanent seating solutions, from pillows to temporary backrests that fans can rent and install for the entire home or even for a game. It was a dreamy business in which a well-known giant, Learfield, had long dominated, although it now faces increasing competition from changing the college landscape.

Seating decisions have not always been in Learfield’s wheelhouse. IMG College Seating was launched in 1998 and later integrated into IMG and eventually folded into Learfield following the merger of the two strong multimedia rights centers at the college. In the field of multimedia rights (MMR) and marketing spaces, Learfield has become the largest player in the business.

Learfield currently provides temporary savings to more than 80 of 130 FBS schools, giving 600,000 seats to these partners annually. But a change in fan habits and competition from a company called 4Topps has reduced that market share – a microcosm of challenges that the undisputed giant once faced on many fronts in its business.

“Honestly, I think [the competition from 4Topps] made us a better company, ”said Jake Bye, executive vice president of Learfield Amplify, a silo in which the seating business sits parallel to the company’s verticals of ticket sales and fundraising. “Not that we were complacent, but we had such a large market share and we existed for so long that it was a small wake-up call. Here is a group with a different proposal … [It’s] similar to what happens in MMR space for sure. As a company, we realize that complacency is absolutely our greatest enemy. We are the best in the class and we strongly believe in that, but it is up to us to prove it to our partners. ”

The seats may look like small potatoes, but more than half a million seats from $ 50 to almost $ 100 per seat with a favorable revenue share are quickly turning into an eight-figure revenue stream.

Rental volumes and prices vary by school, with universities setting rental prices based on things like fan demand and renewal rates. (In his contract with Kansas, which Sports received through requests for public entries, 4Topps offered “minimum” seats ranging from $ 65 to $ 80 per grandstand per season). Learfield has an average of less than 7,000 school places, and 4Topps rents peaked at 9,000 in Mississippi during its first football season with the product last fall. The typical revenue share of 4Topps is around 45% (according to several contracts reviewed by Sports), which generates an average revenue of several hundred thousand dollars per school – a lower return than Learfield often makes in its MMR business, for example, but a significant source of income when done on a scale.

4Topps added nearly a dozen schools to its NCAA list, which includes nearly 60 schools in all its products, after introducing its own grandstand in 2021. Many of these partners have previously worked with Learfield for semi-permanent seats. Although Learfield did not disclose details about the changes in its seating clients, Bye confirmed that it had lost “several” schools due to “new competition in this space”.

“The way we have positioned ourselves is, if we can design better, first class [semi-permanent] seats, this is a way to drastically improve the fan experience without the cost of major renovations and capital campaigns, ”said Bai. “Fortunately, we managed to keep customers that way, but the business is not about keeping, it’s about growing.”

The latter is exactly what 4Topps does. An inter-collegiate athletics company at its core, Learfield turned to new markets such as golf, horse racing and NASCAR to drive this growth as competition for NCAA customers intensified.

“The college is our fastest growing area with a comfortable margin,” said Deron Nardo, president and CEO of 4Topps. “[Learfield] there was a monopoly more or less on the market of grandstand seats for a very long time. We learned that there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the product there and we are a seating company that designs products based on demand. Now, with our product designed [and] in the market, we are optimistic, as always, that we will continue to have market share. “

But the threat to Learfield’s dominance comes not only from outside players, it is also the result of internal pressure from the industry. As the endless arms race in college athletics continues, hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium renovations and upgrades are increasingly involving seat improvements and first-class offerings that make comfort-focused solutions necessary, at least in college football. older.

The mesh material, which allows better airflow, is the most obvious distinction between 4Topps seats and traditional backrest or cushion offerings – especially useful in hot climates – but 4Topps permanent seat solutions have also become popular in the big college as part of them. . many repairs. For example, the company is currently working with Alabama to build a first-class rookie seating section, replace club-level seats in Clemson, implement a new first-class seating section at FSU, where the group once sat (sorry, group) and is gaining ground. as consultations in new construction and repair activities.

And as schools rethink their location and reconsider the need for maximum capacity as attendance declines, 4Topps sees an even greater opportunity to grow its college business. If the temporary seat backs put them in the door, their premium products can keep them there as college fans continue to grow.

The two competitors also coexist in a number of places where Learfield, for example, handles temporary seating, and 4Topps’ permanent products, such as its eponymous table in the four-peaked stadium, exist elsewhere in the stadium’s first-class sections. Coexistence may be the new norm for Learfield on all fronts – whether it’s with new contenders like Playfly in the brighter MMR space or 4Topps in something as unobtrusive as the seats.

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