Kit Walsh and his business associates — Derek Eiler, Chris Prindiville and Scott Bouyack — know a thing or two about collegiate licensing. In fact, such might be an understatement.
The four co-founders of Atlanta-based Fermata Partners largely contributed to the collegiate licensing community with a combined 60 years of work at Collegiate Licensing Co. (CLC). When CLC was sold to sports, media and entertainment giant IMG in 2007, Walsh and team embarked on a new path — albeit in the same industry — four years later.
After the expiration of a two-year non-compete clause — which Walsh says was honored very strictly — the foursome formed Fermata and inked the University of Kentucky as its first client.
“We originally formed Fermata with the idea of doing a robust consulting practice across a few different buckets,” Walsh says. “Licensing was one of them, but also brand development and cultivation, and college. As we got going, we kept coming back to licensing. We started realizing that it would be interesting to start working in some areas outside of college. It had always intrigued us while we were at CLC, and many brands had come to us and asked us about our interest, but we were still focused on college so we never threw our hat in the ring on some of those things. We couldn’t get away from our heritage in college, and a lot of the relationships we still had with universities remained strong.”
Today, Fermata holds collegiate licensing deals with the University of Miami, University of Oregon and the University of Georgia. The agency also handles licensing for the Premier League, Little League Baseball, Waffle House, Cabela’s, Gaelic Athletic Association, American Roadtrip, Vault of American Football, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and — most recently — Liverpool Football Club.
“After those two years [for the non-compete clause] were up we had a couple schools that were interested in talking to us, so we kind of shifted a little bit and divided the business between collegiate licensing and all brands outside of the sphere of college, which we call Fermata Icons,” Walsh says. “We’ve kind of shifted it out a little further with Fermata FC, for the soccer practice, which we’ve got in place.”
Walsh spent a few minutes with SportsFan Retailer sharing his thoughts on the company, its philosophies and its future.
Sports Fan Retailer: What services does your firm provide?
Kit Walsh: Serving a brand in regard to its entire licensing program. So we don’t sell out parts of services. We’ve moved away from consulting in that respect, so taking a brand and ensuring the proper control of the intellectual property and really serving as the steward for that brand in regard to any commercial aspects is what we do. Services, which include legal, accounting, marketing, auditing, quality control and corporate responsibility, are all different aspects of managing a licensing company.
SFR: What are some differences between your group and other collegiate licensing agencies?
Walsh: We’re very proud of what we built at CLC. The difference between college and other sports leagues is that every college manages its own program. There’s no revenue sharing across various schools, so you have an agreement with individual schools. The goal when we first got CLC started was to aggregate as many of these as made sense to try to present more scale to the licensees and, in turn, have those licensees have a broader platform to present to retail. We’re proud of the aggregation, and the model we had in place was right at the time. But the model that we have now really looks at each brand more strategically. It’s not right for everyone, because some universities may want to continue to manage their program on the same path they’ve been on. But we’re looking at partnering with the right collegiate brands and presenting a platform that is strategic, that honors the great perception of these brands, and mirrors a licensing program off of what that brand perception is. The last thing I’ll add is we put the brand and the consumer in the middle of the model.
SFR: How is Fermata organized and operated?
Walsh: There are four partners. Derek Eiler is our managing partner. Chris Prindiville, Scott Bouyack and I are the other three partners involved. We’re still small, so it’s all hands on deck. The four of us oversee everything, but Chris and Derek lean more on the college side in terms of their day-to-day focus, while Scott and I lean more to the Fermata FC and Fermata Icons side of the business. It’s the four of us and we’ve got a staff of 11. We are growing, but we’re small and we understand that everyone has to do a little bit of everything.
SFR: What are future plans for growing markets like soccer?
Walsh: Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and it’s going to continue to grow in North America. We know it has more of an uphill battle here in North America than in other countries because of the competition and how engrained the four big sports — American football, baseball, basketball and hockey — are in North America. They key to taking it to the next level has been media-driven. The television deal that the (Barclays) Premier League has with NBC has been nothing short of miraculous in terms of what it has been able to do to jury more exposure for those English Premier League clubs. We’ve started there (England); we think that’s the most natural place for us to start, and there is a lot more exposure for those clubs on television and digital platforms than there is product available in the marketplace. So we started (in England) and we want to continue to focus there, but we’re also having conversations with a number of international clubs and some of the international country federations. We think that marrying those great brands with more licensed consumer product sensibility that’s more American is the plan and that’s what we think can be successful.
SFR: How important was signing a major SEC school like the University of Georgia?
Walsh: Well, I should point out that Kentucky was our first client. Kentucky stepping forward and adopting this model, and the trust that they have with us was critical. Having Georgia sitting alongside a great brand like Kentucky — they’re two of the best brands in the country from a sports conference that is among the most successful in the country. And they’re in an area of the country where the affinity for college brands is arguably as strong as any other in the country. You’ve got a fan affinity, you’ve got a conference — for sports — whose brands are competing on a national television platform in a whole bunch of different sports. It makes it more appealing and makes their reach greater than a lot of the other (schools) in terms of the media. It was key, no question, but we still maintain that there are fantastic university clients of ours now and potential clients in all areas of the country. It just so happens that we have a lot of history with these SEC schools. Oregon and Miami presented two client opportunities for us that have as much national appeal as any institution out there. Those are two iconic brands.
SFR: What is the key to being a successful agency in a market that’s dominated by several large, prestigious licensing groups?
Walsh: First and foremost, we’re not aiming to be the biggest. We think the marketplace is mature enough now, and in some cases it can be too confusing. We want to present a really clear message to consumers of the college/university products that we represent. Our mantra is really quality as opposed to quantity. We think that by creating a strategic approach that rewards the universities, their fans and alumni with a more prestigious brand, as opposed to being one of many, is going to resonate in the marketplace. It’s going to be less about short-term revenue gain as it is about long-term brand health and sustainability.
SFR: What are the future plans for Fermata?
Walsh: The only future plans we have currently are to best serve the existing clients that we have: the clients who have taken a risk in trusting us to break away from the management of the licensing program they had before or to start a new licensing program. We’re only as good as our clients feel like we are. Our focus right now is 100% on maintaining the kind of service level that I think we’ve demonstrated to those clients initially. Beyond that, we take a look at opportunities as they come, but we’ve got our hands full right now with our four collegiate clients and with a number of terrific non-collegiate clients that we’ve been working with.