Story as it appears in SBJ, Feb. 7, 2022 issue by Reporter Bret McCormick. Online version.
Since the mid-1980s, Frank Floyd Jr. has heated NFL and college football sidelines, first through non-open flame heaters and later through his Dragon Seats heated benches.
But Dragon Seats’ market potential had always been limited to America’s coldest climates. Stadiums in the Sun Belt or with roofs didn’t need heated benches. The NFL had rules against blocking the views of front-row fans — precluding huge AC units — and stadium sidelines tended to have limited power capabilities anyway.
A breakthrough came in 2019 that changed Dragon Seats’ future. The Cleveland-based company discovered a compact air conditioning unit that ran on 110-volt power, small enough to meet the NFL’s requirements of not blocking views of the action but able to lower a bench’s ambient temperature by 30 degrees.
Dragon Seats’ market potential had just ballooned.
Not only could Dragon Seats provide benches for ski resorts, baseball dugouts, tennis courts, and college football, but now the entire NFL. Its benches are on 18 NFL sidelines, but the goal, now achievable with the hybrid bench, is all 30 stadiums.
“Our goal is uniformity. We want these teams to be able to enjoy sideline comfort, either home or away,” said Floyd Jr., Dragon Seats’ chairman and CEO. “We now have a product that we can propose and present to any facility in the United States.”
The creation of the hybrid bench, which is made of fiberglass and includes heated and cooled helmet knobs, set off a period of accelerated growth, close to 75% year-over-year in 2020 and more than double in 2021, a pattern the company expects to continue into the foreseeable future. The company made key personnel additions, changed its business model from sales to leasing, and developed a previously untapped line of sponsorship business with Learfield and DeWalt that put the toolmaker’s logo on 25 Power Five college football teams’ benches in 2021. That one-year trial went well enough that DeWalt and Learfield just last week renewed the deal for two more football seasons.
“That’s what really can set this thing on fire for them, is bringing it to not only colleges but also professional teams with that sponsor application, and them having the flexibility to do it either way,” whether sponsored or branded benches, said Rick Barakat, Learfield executive vice president and managing director, media and partnerships group. “It’s very creative and important, not just the element itself but how it’s presented. It really gives them a whole new opportunity to scale this thing.”
Finding the bigger opportunity
Floyd Jr.’s primary business for three decades was heating construction sites. At a Cleveland Browns practice in 1986, he suggested to one of the team’s equipment managers that he could keep the team’s players warmer, and do so more safely, than the open-flame torpedo heaters the Browns were using. That led to Floyd’s first side work heating an NFL team’s sideline.
The schools involved in the initial DeWalt sponsorship in 2021:
ACC – 4
Boston College, FSU, Louisville, N.C. State
Big Ten – 8
Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Big 12 – 8
Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, West Virginia
Mountain West – 1
Pac-12 – 4
Cal, Colorado, Utah, Washington
Less than a decade later, Floyd Jr. created the heated bench and the Browns again were receptive, debuting the bench during the 1995 season. Floyd slowly built the side business for the next two decades, then sold his construction site heating company in 2017 to focus on Dragon Seats.
Two of Floyd Jr.’s children took interest around that time, including his daughter, Molly, who was hired in 2018 and plays a key role overseeing the company’s increasingly complicated logistics. His son, Franklin Floyd III, who now serves as Dragon Seats COO, joined the company in mid-2019 after graduating from Columbia University business school and ditching an unfulfilling Wall Street job. Franklin watched NFL and college football games with a stopwatch, timing how long sideline benches appeared on the TV; a later IEG study found that the bench spent about 11 minutes total on TV through the course of a season.
The kids’ full-time involvement spurred critical changes in Dragon Seats’ business model. The company switched from selling benches to leasing them, with one-, three- and five-year leases, as well as one-off rentals available (Dragon Seats declined to share bench pricing). Leasing led to more predictable cash flow and business growth, and more face time with the college and pro teams’ equipment managers and operations staff. Stronger relationships generated valuable feedback about pain points and other problems that Dragon Seats might solve for its clients, like the need for an air-conditioned bench or varying sizes of benches. Accordingly, the company increased investment in manufacturing, engineering, and design talent, resulting in the hybrid bench.
“We were in the space for 30 years with an exemplary product. It was accepted by the NFL, which is a huge, huge challenge,” said Floyd Jr. “Then these guys came on board,” he said, pointing at his son and Dragon Seats strategic adviser Clarke Jones, seated either side of him at a conference table, “and say, ‘hey, there is a bigger opportunity here than just existing in the space with an excellent product. Let’s get into the warmer climates, Frank. Figure that out.’”
A point of ownership
Dragon Seats made heated benches for college teams for more than 15 years but never pursued sponsorship. That changed when former IMG executive Jones began working with the crew in January 2019. He’d spent 25 years at IMG, primarily working in golf, and he brought the sports marketing experience the company lacked.
The DeWalt sponsorship deal seeds were planted by Jones and Floyd III during lunch with Barakat at the 2019 Learfield IMG College Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York. Once an initial agreement was in place with Learfield, the two companies worked for months to iron out logistics, determine the sponsorship value of the benches and set a rate card before taking the benches to the market.
They found DeWalt with the help of ANC, owned by Learfield and a longtime provider for the tool company. Learfield decided to launch the activation with the Power Five schools because of their brand power, audience and TV exposure. The deal was initially set for 2020 but was put on ice for a year as COVID-19 toyed with the college football season. Ahead of the 2021 season, 100 pieces of Dragon Seats equipment were built in 90 days, then installed at the schools’ stadiums specifically with DeWalt tools.
“[DeWalt] wanted a point of ownership, something that was kind of customized and unique, and they also loved the aspect of delivering safety and performance benefits to the schools and the student athletes,” said Barakat.
IEG Global Managing Director Peter Laatz said the TV value of sideline sponsorships, particularly in college football, are “super contingent on the networks that are carrying the games, the teams that are playing, and, frankly, the action in the game. Those things are all out of everyone’s control.”
That made the earned media that DeWalt got from press conferences, highlights and social media during the 2021 season even more valuable. Baylor hosted a weekly football video interview series in front of the bench, while Texas’ Twitter account went mildly viral by capitalizing on a trend with a tweet thread centered on the Longhorns’ DeWalt bench that received over 250,000 impressions and a 6.8% engagement rate (social media engagement above 2% is strong). In all, Learfield estimated that DeWalt reached nine million fans and 200 million viewers.
Floyd Jr. wouldn’t share specific numbers illustrating growth, but the evidence for Dragon Seats’ ascent is clear. The company, now with 15 full- and part-time employees, has heated benches at L.L. Bean’s headquarters in Maine, and at three ski resorts, including one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s working with more than 50 colleges, and baseball teams at all levels, plus the NFL.
In 2020, Dragon Seats bought custom-built trailers and trucks and brought the shipping of its benches in-house, greatly reducing shipping risk and enabling the company to spend more quality time with team equipment managers and operations people to learn what other challenges they were confronting on the sidelines.
And there is still plenty of room to grow with the NFL. Official sideline sponsorships cost in the “healthy eight figures” said Laatz, so that’s out of the question. Instead, Dragon Seats’ goal is more akin to becoming an unofficially preferred provider of benches for the NFL, helping it achieve near-total uniformity on its sidelines.
It can achieve that by continuing its work with the individual clubs, some of which still use traditional aluminum benches and open-flame torpedo heaters. Dragon Seats benches have been used in all 30 stadiums, counting one-off rentals, so, with the hybrid bench, it’s now a reachable goal.
“The NFL has a stated goal of uniformity,” Jones said. “If you look at a game in Miami and a game in Green Bay, and a game in New Orleans, you’re going to see three different pictures of sidelines. I think the NFL would like that picture to look the same, as it relates to their sideline. Our hope is that one day the NFL will think we can add enough value that we can work with them on a leaguewide basis.”