By Don Muret

Staff writer, Sports Business Journal

Published August 16, 2010

Learfield Sports and Levy Restaurants have formed a joint venture to pursue food contracts at college sports facilities and have recently signed deals at Iowa State, Missouri and Purdue that start this football season.

Learfield has multimedia rights deals at all three schools. For Levy, a major league concessionaire and a division of Compass Group, the world’s largest food vendor, the partnership gets its foot in the door in a new market where it did not previously operate.

The move represents the first true partnership between a multimedia rights holder and concessionaire that focuses on signing food deals in the college ranks. The plan is for Learfield to sign deals with sponsors and advertise their brands at arenas, stadiums and other sports venues on campus, while Levy commits to serving their food and drink products at those facilities.

Learfield has multimedia rights deals at 51 schools and will compete for their food business when those concessions contracts are set to expire, said Roger Gardner, Learfield’s vice chairman.

“We had been looking at the college business to find other areas where we can use our expertise and combine with other entities to produce a higher level of service and opportunities for our sponsors,” Gardner said. “Each of us stays in our own area of the sandbox, but we will work together.”

At Mizzou, Learfield Levy Foodservice signed a five-year deal and is investing more than $300,000 to install new equipment and upgrade concession stands and signs, said Tim Hickman, senior associate athletic director for operations.

Learfield first presented the concept to Missouri officials in Columbia, 30 miles from Learfield’s home office in Jefferson City, Mo., about a year ago, Hickman said. Missouri ran its food in-house for many years before issuing a request for proposal and selecting Learfield Levy Foodservice.

“It’s a little bit of a test and a different model,” Hickman said. “By marrying our marketing inventory with the food service operation, you help both ends of the business.”

For concessionaires and sports marketers, the relationship between the two parties has traditionally been more of a separation than a marriage, and that is why some industry insiders question whether this partnership will work, keeping in mind it has to ultimately benefit the school as the client.

“A food provider has a set of national contracts with Vendor A and the school does a deal with Vendor B,” said Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke. “It’s like Coke and Pepsi; there is not much incentive for the concessionaire. But with this deal, we think there will be incentives for both.”

Purdue signed a seven-year deal with Learfield Levy to replace V/Gladieux, a regional food provider, and the partnership will be known as Purdue Experience Network. A key part of the new deal is to upgrade food service for Mackey Arena’s new club seat program opening in 2011, Burke said.

At Iowa State, Learfield Levy Foodservice replaces Centerplate after signing a five-year deal, said Chris Jorgensen, assistant athletic director.

Missouri and Purdue hired food consultant Chris Bigelow to help select a concessionaire for their sports venues, and regardless of how the partnership is structured, those deals have to make fiscal sense for concessions operations, he said.

“It’s not like Learfield is getting a free ride just because they have the media rights,” Bigelow said. “In theory, the products [tied to sponsors] will be advertised and promoted more in stadiums, but will it increase sales? Part of it is Learfield’s deals at colleges are different depending on the school.”

Levy officials did not return e-mails for comment.

Posted on Monday, August 16, 2010