On the second floor of Georgetown’s McDonough Arena, the venerable campus gym that has been strained beyond capacity for decades, a cubicle was recently cleared out to create space for the latest addition to the staff.
Jeff Ajluni is taking on a new, hybrid role: A vice president of Fox Sports, Ajluni will draw his salary from the cable network, but he’s embedded in the Hoyas’ athletics department, along with a staff of two, so he can better cultivate corporate sponsorships and marketing initiatives as general manager of a new entity, Georgetown Sports Properties, a division of Fox Sports.
In a 10-year deal to be announced this week, Georgetown is selling its multimedia rights to Fox Sports. In the deal, Georgetown will outsource its marketing and corporate sponsorships for its radio broadcasts, digital and print advertising, game-day signage and hospitality.
In doing so, Georgetown is following a national trend that started roughly a decade ago when universities that play big-time sports began realizing that the dollars at stake were escalating so rapidly that their media rights were best brokered by professionals.
The fact that the Hoyas have fallen in line — albeit on their own terms and timetable — represents a major step for Georgetown athletics, both financially and philosophically. In teaming with Fox Sports, Georgetown is acknowledging the economic reality driving college sports today: The athletes may be amateurs, but the business of keeping them competitive demands marketing pros.
“You can’t do 21st-century business with 20th-century business practices,” Georgetown Athletic Director Lee Reed noted in a recent interview, adding that the partnership with Fox goes beyond revenue. “Our athletic program is global, certainly national. So to have a national company that is representing a national brand, that synergy made sense.”
The deal will pay Georgetown an estimated $1 million-$3 million per year (more depending on its success, according to informed insiders), punching up the bottom line of Georgetown’s roughly $34.5 million annual athletic budget. Once Fox recoups that investment, revenue-sharing kicks in, with both the network and athletic department benefiting.
The deal also represents a philosophical departure for an athletic department and men’s basketball team well known for handling its business in-house and in private. “Hoya Paranoia” it was dubbed during the tenure of Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach John Thompson Jr., who was assiduous in keeping the media, his rivals and much of the world at arm’s length.
Reed said he had been mulling an outsourcing arrangement for several years, weighing the benefits of “controlling our brand” by handling sponsorships in house vs. the potential opportunity lost in not hiring a nationally networked company to do so.
“There are certain things we just won’t accept, certain categories [of sponsors] we won’t get involved in because of who we are, what we stand for and who we represent,” Reed said, explaining the deliberation. “We have to have a partnership that makes sense not only for the athletic program but for the university. We have always kept our hands tight around that.”
In Fox Sports, Georgetown gets a business partner known for pushing the envelope — creative, bold and unabashed about testing the limits in taking on the hegemony of ESPN and the major networks. Fox Sports introduced the “glowing puck” in NHL coverage, as well as “Scooter,” the animated talking baseball that described major league pitches. Both, alas, were short-lived. But it’s that spirit of “why-not” thinking that appeals to Reed and Dan O’Neil, senior associate athletic director for external affairs, who will serve as the chief liaison.
Said Fox executive Dan Shell, who was instrumental in negotiating the deal: “What Fox can do for a school like Georgetown, beyond traditional corporate partnerships, is really grow the brand locally and regionally. Fox can do a lot beyond just selling.”
That could include a weekly coach’s show for John Thompson III or a broader-based program featuring Hoyas athletes and coaches from a range of teams. It should mean a more technologically savvy game-day experience for fans.
It certainly should mean a broader portfolio of sponsors to complement Geico, PNC Bank and Coca-Cola, the Hoyas’ primary backers.
Georgetown, for example, has no marketing deal with an automotive company — a rarity for a major athletic department.
“What I want is to have them nonstop walking through our door and presenting us with business opportunities and relationship opportunities that we haven’t had in the past,” Reed said.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Reed will sign off on everything, mindful that Georgetown, as a Jesuit institution, is grounded in rigorous academic and ethical standards.
But the Fox Sports deal affords a chance to develop new business partnerships, as well as new educational opportunities for students such as Fox Sports University, a program already underway in Georgetown’s Sports Industry Management, in which students tackle real-world marketing assignments and are critiqued by the network’s staffers.
“In higher education, especially at Georgetown, we will leave some money on the table if it’s not the right deal for us and it doesn’t make sense for us,” Reed said. “But we still have a bottom line that we’re trying to get.”
As Reed spoke, the din of jackhammers rattled windows of his office in McDonough.
It was the sound of construction on the $62 million John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletics Center, a four-story, 114,000 square foot complex that will relieve the burden on McDonough. Built in 1951 when the Hoyas fielded eight varsity teams, McDonough today houses locker rooms, training rooms and meeting rooms for nearly all of the Hoyas’ 29 varsity teams, plus offices for coaches and administrators.
The long awaited addition of the Thompson Center, scheduled to open in August 2016, is part of the same narrative currently unfolding behind the walls of the cloistered campus.
Steeped in tradition, Georgetown has neither the means nor desire to engage in a full-tilt athletics arms-race with Ohio State or Texas. But it’s imperative that Hoyas athletics ramp up their revenue and facilities to remain competitive.
Fox Sports stands to gain from the deal, too.
There’s the obvious cache of being associated with Georgetown, regarded as a “pillar brand” in sports-marketing parlance, Shell notes. There’s also the strategic synergy of investing more deeply in a property Fox already has a stake in as the broadcast partner of the Big East.
“Georgetown being good is good for Fox,” said Shell, general manager and vice president of USC Properties. “It’s of strategic importance to Fox because of the Big East.”
Fox Sports is a small player on the landscape of college athletics’ multimedia rights compared to IMG College, whose 80-odd properties include Michigan, Texas and Ohio State, and Learfield Sports, whose nearly 100 properties include North Carolina, Indiana and Wisconsin. Georgetown is Fox Sports’ second property, joining Southern California, whose football program was the chief lure when Fox struck its first deal in 2011, soon after signing on for a stake in a $3 billion deal for (then) Pac-10 TV rights.
Ajluni, whose background is in professional sports, has already gotten started reviewing sponsorships in place and identifying brands and categories of brands to pitch on the merits of being associated with the Hoyas.
“They have been running a sponsorship program, and it has gone well,” Ajluni said of the Hoyas. “With the assets and experience we can bring to the table, we’re going to take it up to another level. We have the fuel in our engine; Georgetown basketball has the power and prestige.”