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March 16, 2010

TEAMING UP WITH ISP - Virginia Tech and International Sports Properties have been working together for over a decade to maximize the Hokies' advertising potential while also meeting the needs of the sponsors

By: Jimmy Robertson

ISP and the Tech athletics department arranged for Virginia Lottery to give away a Corvette to Lawrence Carroll, the winner of Virginia Lottery’s Corvette Lovers Summer Sweepstakes, during the halftime of the Tech-Nebraska football game.

Ever wonder how to get an advertisement on during a Tech football or basketball broadcast? Or perhaps buy an ad for a Tech game program?

Well, a company called International Sports Properties – ISP, for short – can provide all the answers.

ISP, a company based in Winston-Salem, N.C., serves as the exclusive multimedia rights holder for Virginia Tech athletics – something the company executives there have been doing for nearly 15 years. The company has a regional office in Blacksburg headed by Rick Barakat, Vice President & General Manager, and a local staff of six full-time employees. From small “mom-and-pop” businesses to large corporations, they meet the needs of those looking to sponsor and market with the Hokies and balance those needs with those of Virginia Tech athletics.

Ben Sutton, the CEO of ISP, Barakat and Tech AD Jim Weaver recently offered some insight into how this dynamic partnership between ISP and Virginia Tech athletics works.

ISP’s history with Tech

Virginia Tech’s ISP Team

Rick Barakat

Vice President and General Manager

Bill Roth

Assistant Vice President

Director of Broadcast Operations

Jeff Shumate

Associate General Manager

Kevin Klammer

Senior Account Executive

Kyle Winchester

Account Executive

Ashleigh Waddle

Marketing Assistant

Like most good businesses, a person gets an idea and then takes bold action, which leads to the spawning of something huge.

Sutton worked in the athletics department at Wake Forest – his alma mater – as the director of sports marketing. While there, he saw inefficiency in the way most athletic departments sold media rights. Often, radio, television, print and stadium signage rights each went to different companies, who then basically went into competition with each other for advertising revenue.

So Sutton wondered – why not have one entity manage all of this?

He left his job and formed his company, and Wake Forest became the first school to buy into his vision. He ultimately wanted to expand, and three years later, found another school willing to take a chance on him and his company – Virginia Tech.

A committee formed by Dave Braine, the Tech AD at the time, and Minnis Ridenour, the school’s executive vice president and COO at the time, liked Sutton’s pitch and they recommended to Braine that the athletics department sign on with ISP.

“They were seeking proposals for a radio network-driven package,” Sutton said. “They really warmed up to the idea of ‘packaging’ multiple sets of rights into one deal as we’d done at Wake Forest a couple of years before. No one else in our industry space was doing anything like that except for us at that time, but I think the group studying this for Tech was pretty savvy and entrepreneurial in their approach and was, frankly, interested in who had the best plan for maximizing exposure and revenue for the university.”

Sutton and Braine came together on a four-year deal in October of 1995 in which ISP would handle all the sponsorship opportunities for football and basketball game radio broadcasts, radio call-in shows, coaches’ television shows, courtside signage, game programs, sports media brochures and other publications.

For ISP, the deal was huge.

“Part of our early challenge since Wake was to find another university that looked at our company as more than the Wake Forest guys selling for the Deacons,” Sutton said. “Virginia Tech gave us more regional and industry credibility.”

Today, ISP’s stable includes more than 60 schools, five conferences and three bowl games. The company employs more than 300 employees, and two years ago, moved its corporate headquarters to a brand new, eye catching building in downtown Winston-Salem.

The company tabs itself as “America’s Home for College Sports” – and it’s easy to see why.

ISP handles it all

Charles Howerton decided to go to the Tech-Clemson basketball game at the last minute and it paid dividends. He won $10,000 after nailing a halfcourt shot at halftime as part of a promotion sponsored by longtime Tech sponsor UDI Communities.

ISP serves as the exclusive multimedia rights holder for Virginia Tech athletics, but many often wonder what exactly that means. For sure, it covers a wide expanse of areas.

For starters, ISP handles all the advertising for Tech’s radio broadcasts. The company sells spots, or commercials, along with other features and sponsorships in all sports radio game broadcasts and Tech Talk LIVE!, a weekly radio show during the football and basketball seasons. It also includes the same inventory on the Virginia Tech Sports Today television shows (30 a year) and Hokie Playback, which is the weekly re-broadcasting of all home football games.

ISP originally cuts its teeth, so to speak, on this aspect of the business, particularly the radio end of it, and the Virginia Tech/ISP Radio Network remains lucrative for both Tech and ISP. Thanks largely to the success of Tech’s football and basketball programs, the radio network now boasts more than 30 affiliates, and more importantly, blankets the state and the Washington, D.C., market. ISP works to make sure there is not a place in Virginia or D.C., where one cannot hear Tech’s game broadcasts or shows, and the network extends into parts of Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina as well.

Without question, Bill Roth’s presence helps ISP. For starters, the “Voice of the Hokies” is wildly popular among Tech fans and among the university as a whole. He often serves as a guest speaker for many organizations on campus and in the community, whether it is department athletics events, the Hokie Club, sponsor appearances, the alumni association, student affairs or the Blacksburg Sports Club.

But Roth also believes in the partnership between ISP and Virginia Tech. He signed a contract with ISP and is a fulltime, salaried employee of the company, and he spends a lot of time visiting with affiliates and sponsors selling the Virginia Tech-ISP partnership.

“His popularity, insight and professionalism are unmatched and it’s really difficult to put a value on,” Barakat said. “A lot of our success, we attribute to having such a key asset in our office. That’s another thing that separates the Virginia Tech-ISP property from others. In a lot of cases, the radio voice is a part-time employee, but Bill is in here every day and believes in what we’re doing. We’re taking advantage of his talents to help make us even more successful.”

But ISP is about much more than radio and TV. The group handles all signage and the video boards inside Tech’s athletics department facilities. For example, one sees advertisers on the panels of the scoreboards at Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum. ISP sells that space.

It also sells the sponsorships on Cassell Coliseum’s courtside LED display and the press row panels. It sells shot clock signage, portal signage and the team bench seatbacks. There are similar signage opportunities at the baseball, softball and soccer complexes.

And it sells ads for any print publications, such as Inside Hokie Sports, game programs, team posters, schedule cards and other related print products. It sells ads and sponsorships for, the official Web site of Virginia Tech athletics, and it added Hokies All-Access to the Web site, partnering with CBS Interactive to do so. CBS Interactive provides the actual audio/video player and the related infrastructure, which allows Tech fans to listen to all audio and video offerings related to Virginia Tech athletes.

Perhaps, the best thing ISP sells is what they don’t sell … or don’t know they sell yet. ISP and VT pride themselves on being innovative and meeting the changing needs of today’s sponsors. Barakat says, “Sometimes the best ideas aren’t already in the can or on the rate card. We typically can develop more creative and customized opportunities by working directly with our sponsors to identify and understand their business needs.”

“I really think we’re the premier sports brand in the state of Virginia,” he added. “There’s no question. There’s no pro product in our state and that’s advantageous to us. So if you want to activate your brand through sports marketing and you want to associate with the highest profile property in the state of Virginia, I think it’s an easy case for us to make that we’re the place for you to be.

“We have one of the more impressive radio and television network portfolios in the company, plus we’ve added Hokies All-Access, which provides a nice addition to our media offerings. Hokies All-Access is an excellent platform and it’s loaded with diverse content. We also have a deal with XM Satellite Radio, so you can hear our radio broadcasts through the over-the-air network, on All-Access and on XM. We’re trying to give our fans as much access as possible to the content – and thus our sponsors access to our fans. We want to make sure all that content is available 24-7 anywhere in the world.”

And ISP continues to branch out within the athletics department and within the university community. For example, the company handles Tech’s rental of stadium chair-back seats now. College Comfort, a company founded and run by Virginia Tech graduates John Hite and Franklin Yancey and with the help of Tech graduate Jed Hurt, used to do that and had built a nice business, handling chair-back seating for more than 30 schools across the country. ISP bought the assets of College Comfort and renamed it ISP Stadium Seating, and then hired the trio to run the operation for it.

Also, ISP formed an alliance with the Licensing Resource Group, a company that provides licensing expertise in terms of merchandising, designing products, marketing and brand development. And guess who is one of LRG’s clients? Virginia Tech.

So Barakat and his staff now work in tandem with licensing, a department headed up by Locke White, who serves as Tech’s director of licensing and trademarks.

“We want to be known as one-stop shopping so to speak, for our university partners and our clients,” Barakat said. “And we’re looking into continuing to diversify our assets and develop other areas that make sense for us. This keeps everything under the same umbrella.

“So we’re trying to get to the point where we can do a lot more for you than just your multimedia rights. It gets back to adding depth to our connections on campus and in the community. We work with licensing, facilities, concessions, athletics, alumni, donors, central campus along with our sponsors. Whomever it is, we’re trying to provide targeted turnkey solutions for everyone involved. We want to be a solutions company.”

ACC impact

The Virginia Tech athletics department and ISP like to thank their sponsors every year by inviting them to a banquet held on the floor at Cassell Coliseum each May.

A little more than two years ago, the Virginia Tech athletics department and ISP came to an agreement on a 10-year contract through 2018 that allowed ISP to remain in its role. The deal made sense for both sides.

“For us, it was important to continue a partnership that has been going on for 15 years and served both of us well,” Weaver said. “ISP is a national company and they have contacts all over the country. They stretch from Boston to Miami and all the way out to Los Angeles and Seattle. They’re able to put together packages and increase our brand and exposure in a way that we couldn’t do if we tried to handle this ourselves. So continuing our relationship with ISP made sense.”

From ISP’s perspective, the deal continues a fruitful relationship with a top-10 football program and a program successful in numerous other sports. But rest assured, the company would not have done such a deal had the Hokies not gotten into the ACC.

“It’s been a very big factor,” Barakat said. “The difference between the Big East and ACC is night and day. Now, Virginia Tech is much more relevant in the region. It’s more attractive to student-athletes, fans and to sponsors. Moving to the ACC has been huge for all of us.”

ISP credits Weaver for helping it secure contracts with other ACC schools. A year ago, Duke signed a 10-year contract with ISP, and in 2007, Florida State signed a 10-year deal. Those schools became the seventh and eighth, respectively, out of the 12-team league to align themselves with the company.

The conference aligned itself as well. ISP now holds the conference’s national radio rights.

“It’s a networking business and ISP considers itself as strong as its network of athletics directors,” Barakat said. “To have a confidante like Jim Weaver out there in the market and to have had success with two AD’s at Virginia Tech through both Jim and Dave Braine … they’ve helped us grow our business, not just by signing contracts, but also by giving endorsements of us to their colleagues.”

Challenges of today

Contrary to what many may believe, the phones of Barakat and his staff do not typically ring by themselves. A sluggish economy resulted in one of the more difficult years during ISP’s tenure in Blacksburg as far as securing new sponsorships.

“It’s been challenging for any advertising entity,” Barakat said. “You see that across the board. What’s going on in the NFL? What’s going on with the PGA? What’s going on in the NBA? Everyone is losing sponsors and properties that can’t get it done are reducing staffs and laying people off. You’re seeing events that go un-sponsored. You can look down the road at the Quail Hollow Championship [a PGA Tour event] in Charlotte and it had no title sponsor last year. You’re talking about marquee events and entitlements that deliver valuable marketing assets and in some cases you just can’t get them sold.”

The economy isn’t the only challenge for Barakat and his staff. They also must deal with perceptions of Virginia Tech on a constant basis. Many executives from large corporations view the university as being tucked away in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and thus without a wide-ranging market, or appeal.

“We’re a statewide play,” Barakat said. “Our biggest markets are in Richmond and northern Virginia. Roanoke and the New River Valley are our home markets, but we are much bigger than that.

“You think about the exposure we get for our football and basketball games. ESPN and the other networks wouldn’t take all those games and put us on all these Thursday nights if we were just a small player hidden in the hills of southwest Virginia. We’re much bigger than this little corner of the state. But that can present challenges due to misconceptions about our reach.”

As long as Virginia Tech continues to be successful, though, the perception will change. Barakat understands this.

And as for the economy, ISP, as a major company, sees it coming around in 2010.

“The movement in the market is as good as it’s been in three years,” Barakat said. “We’re getting in front of more people and presenting some exciting packages. People are spending money and are more optimistic about the prospects of their businesses moving forward.

“Fortunately, we have programs that are consistently doing well and are on the rise and we’re going out in a rejuvenated market with a great product.”

Future for Tech and ISP

Barakat and his staff plan on continuing what they’ve traditionally done – sell Tech radio and television broadcasts and products, sell ads for print publications and and sell signage for all of the athletics department’s facilities.

But the times are changing. More and more sponsors want to deliver their message over the video boards at Tech’s venues, and both ISP and Tech plan on investing more in that area, particularly at Lane Stadium. They want to add two new LED panels in both corners of the north end zone to replace the existing hard signage, a new LED panel in the south end zone and a new LED to replace the out-of-town scoreboard.

“From a sponsor standpoint, it’s more attractive and it allows for better messaging opportunities,” Barakat said. “For example, instead of just branding ‘nTelos Wireless,’ now we can say, ‘nTelos…discover the power of n. Come in and sign up for the Pass for Cash promotion today.’ Not many sponsors are only looking solely for brand awareness these days. Consumers want to know what can a company do for them? What are they offering me? What makes them different? So that’s what today’s sponsors want to communicate. It’s not good enough for them to just put their name up anymore. They want to talk to people and be interactive … they want a true multi-media campaign that can effectively get their entire brand message out there.”

The athletics department and ISP are also working with mobile aggregators. These companies will give ISP the ability to execute text driven promotions on Tech’s LED’s and video boards, while also allowing the athletics department to do more promoting of the “Hokies Respect” sportsmanship campaign. In fact, Weaver wants to implement an “unruly fan program” where Tech fans can anonymously text unruly fans to a certain number and give a seat location and an usher will promptly show up.

“As everyone knows, we take the Hokies Respect campaign very seriously, and our fans do, too,” Weaver said. “We want to make sure we’re proactive in maintaining a great experience for our fans on game day, and this is a way to partner with ISP to continue accomplishing our goals.”

Barakat agreed.

“Sure, we’re trying to do things that benefit ISP and our sponsor program,” he said. “But we, too, want to enhance the game day fan experience. That’s very important to us and we feel we can accomplish both objectives at once.”

Going forward, maintaining a healthy, viable partnership remains paramount for both entities, as they seek associations and relationships to increase the Virginia Tech brand and exposure. Working together, they both realize they stand to win big.

“We’ll continue to refine our business model to answer the needs and priorities that the athletics directors and their teams identify,” Sutton said. “We’re excited about leading the charge.

“I can honestly say that Jim Weaver is as good as any AD in America, and he’s surrounded himself with great people who are real pros. Seth [Greenberg] has built an upper echelon ACC program and Frank Beamer is as good as it gets in college sports. He’s as good a football coach as I’ve been around in my 27-year career, in addition to remaining humble and being an incredible husband, father and builder of young men.

“We’re deeply proud of our association with Virginia Tech and look forward to the future.”