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Bill Battle Reflects on the Birth of the Collegiate Licensing Industry

Mar 22, 2013

Prior to being named Director of Athletics at The University of Alabama, Bill  Battle was a revolutionary force in collegiate licensing, creating The Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC),  a true “game changer” for how schools developed their brands.  Here are Bill’s thoughts on the early days of a business that would grow beyond his wildest expectations.

My passion and appreciation for the college business started early, growing up on the campus at Birmingham Southern College where my Dad was the athletic director for more than 30 years. I studied and played or coached football at four great institutions of higher education—Alabama, Oklahoma, the U.S. Military Academy, and Tennessee—which gave me valuable insight into university administrators, university systems, and the passion of college fans.

My experience in trademark licensing began in Selma, Alabama while working for a company that became a licensee of Disney and Jack Nicklaus. I studied other licensors and learned a great deal from the NFL and MLB’s “team sports licensing” models.  The market for retail sales of licensed merchandise in North America in 1980 was estimated to be approximately $10 billion, and was projected to grow to $50 – 75 billion by 1990.

In 1981, we signed our first client, Coach Paul W. Bryant. As we began to license “the Bear’s” name and likeness, requests for Alabama trademarks poured in. Our research indicated there was no collegiate licensing at the time.

As we studied the collegiate market, we discovered that 85 – 90% of collegiate merchandise was being sold through campus bookstores. We anticipated huge demand from fans who rarely, if ever, came on campus. We were confident trademark licensing could strengthen the universities’ ownership of their marks (most of which were not registered) and build value in those brands, which could generate a significant revenue stream to the universities.

We further believed we could provide great value to licensees by granting them a single point of contact for licensing administration, product/design approval, royalty reporting, and marketplace support. We felt licensees could be more easily attracted into the collegiate marketplace and more effectively managed if they could deal with one entity.

Now all we had to do were two simple things:  convince a large number of very independent universities that we could manage their licensing business more efficiently than they could, and convince manufacturers, some of whom had been selling into college bookstores for decades, that they had to get our approval and pay a 6 ½% royalty for the right to do so. Pretty easy, huh?

For our model to work, everyone in the chain would have to win—universities, licensees, retailers, and consumers. Our pitch to universities was based on efficiencies and economies of scale in operations, tremendous clout in marketing, and aggressive trademark enforcement. And, each university retained approval rights over everything we did on its behalf.

In the beginning, few university administrators believed there were significant revenues in licensing. However, they liked the idea of outsourcing to achieve professional management of an unproven new venture. They also appreciated the benefits of other universities willing to join in a collective effort. And they really liked the idea of our staff out in the marketplace enforcing their marks amid a growing base of infringers.

But the best part was—if we didn’t generate any royalties, it wouldn’t cost them a dime.

Fortunately, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest thought our concept was worth a shot. In 1983, I bought out the rights to the company I started in Alabama and moved to Atlanta. I entered into a partnership with Steve Crossland (International Collegiate Enterprises (ICE)), who had agency agreements with Michigan, Illinois, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Arizona State, and others. That partnership would last until 1993 when we bought out ICE’s rights in the domestic market.

The early years were very interesting to say the least. We were not well liked by university bookstore managers, manufacturers selling to bookstores, and screen printers and vendors that sold game day merchandise. Our staff and university licensing directors worked long and hard for years educating the marketplace and their own campuses.

We had to turn “gray” into “black and white” as we helped universities define which marks they had rights to control. We were challenged that “Alabama” and “Michigan” were state names, and that “Auburn” and “Clemson” were city names. We were accused of “taxation without representation,” in that state universities had no right to charge royalties (taxes) to taxpaying citizens.

For years, we were discussed – and “cussed” – about many issues. While bookstore managers and those who sold to them did not immediately embrace collegiate licensing (and had valid reasons for their position), manufacturers and retailers with no connection to universities saw our model as a positive way to enter the collegiate marketplace. Over time and with the support of our university clients, we prevailed on most of the tough issues.

We told manufacturers that collegiate licensing was here to stay; those embracing it would enjoy benefits for years to come. As the collegiate market grew from $250 million in 1981 to $2 billion in 1990, those who bought in were very successful.

One of the most satisfying moments occurred at a trade show in 1996 when one of our biggest critics in the early years approached me.  He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, all those things you said would happen a few years ago have happened. I still don’t like it, but it has been good for everyone involved.” 

Those were some of the sweetest words I’ve ever heard.

Today, the collegiate licensed product market exceeds $4.6 billion in retail sales. The operating and marketing efficiencies our business model created have allowed university licensing directors to elevate their roles on campus to become strategic brand managers.  Most notably, since CLC’s inception, we’ve paid our collegiate partners more than $1 billion in royalties.

I am grateful for the many people who helped build the collegiate licensing industry—university licensing directors passionately fighting for their programs to grow in size, scope, and professionalism; licensees developing amazing products; and retailers in new channels that now carry collegiate merchandise.

I am especially thankful for the extraordinary CLC staff members who bought into our plan and dedicated themselves to providing excellent service to all our sets of clients. I am proud of our successes to date but remain mindful of the fact that in the service business, we’re only as good as “what we’ve done lately” for our clients. There is still room for significant growth in the collegiate licensing industry.