In 1975, a quaint broadcasting company launched by Clyde Lear and Derry Brownfield struck a deal to provide radio network distribution of University of Missouri Athletics.
It seemed simple enough. Carry all of the Mizzou Tigers football and basketball games and distribute the broadcast to dozens of other stations throughout the state.
Little did anyone know that the company, which at the time predominately focused on a niche but important agriculture business, would become a giant in college athletics?
What began as the Missouri Network as an outgrowth of Lear’s Master’s project at the University of Missouri is now Learfield, one of the most successful sports marketing companies in the country. And it’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Learfield with the Class of 2018.
Learfield will be inducted as part of the Enshrinement presented by Killian Construction, set for Sunday, January 28 at the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center in Springfield. (For tickets, call 417-889-3100 & see information below).
Led by CEO Greg Brown since 2009, Learfield now employs more than 1,500 nationwide as a diverse media enterprise, anchored by its core collegiate business, managing multimedia rights and sponsorship initiatives for nearly 130 institutions, conferences and arenas.
It’s grown dramatically in recent years, too, adding capabilities in licensing, branding, ticketing platforms, stadium video displays, food and beverage hospitality and digital marketing.
Even better, much of the success is rooted from an executive team that has worked at Learfield for decades, with Brown joining right out of Truman State University in 1984 and climbing the company totem pole along with several other key executives, who are also partners in the business.
And to think it originated in a small Jefferson City office in 1972.
“In those years, the programs were distributed to the affiliate radio stations by 24-hour leased telephone circuits,” said Lear, a 2012 MSHOF inductee. “So I concocted a business deal with the University of Missouri to sub-lease my circuits to them on Saturday afternoons and that’s how I backed into this sports business.”
Two major pivot points launched Learfield into the stratosphere of sports marketing.
The first was the arrival of satellite technology in the mid-1980s and then, a decade later, the venture into multimedia.
Satellite technology allowed Learfield to expand geographically and economically. In 1984, it became the radio rights holder for Iowa State, the University of Kansas and Oklahoma State University. A year later, Brownfield (who passed away in 2011) sold his share to Lear.
From there, the company’s network expanded to include several then-Southwest Conference schools before heading into Big Ten country.
In about 1996, then-Missouri athletic director Joe Castiglione floated this idea: Why not expand into multimedia and place employees on college campuses?
In essence, the challenge was set. And Learfield’s executive team, despite understandable concerns regarding the risks ahead, knew multimedia expansion was the smart move.
Lear and then Brown have helped to create the right environment for success, showing Learfield was more than mere “radio guys.”
“You can’t do everything,” Brown was quoted as saying in D Magazine in 2016, “so you have to trust your people to do their jobs and allow them to create margins.”
By working on college campuses, Learfield employees help expand the college brands at each.
Where in the old days Learfield was 100 percent sports radio, that figure is far less today, as the company has deftly maneuvered with the changing ecosystem of college athletics.
In doing so, college athletic departments have directed their energy toward bedrock missions of developing student-athletes and managing coaches and staff while Learfield handles the media and sponsorship side, identifying businesses eager to showcase their brands alongside college teams.
Along the way, Learfield has created a rock-solid business model built on trust with the colleges. Thus, collegiate programs have relied on Learfield to move quickly and utilize its sharp business instincts to develop new sponsorship opportunities, expand revenue and deliver high-quality service to sponsors.
Which helps explain Learfield’s extraordinary recent growth spurt.
In recent years, it acquired SIDEARM Sports, the No. 1 provider of college athletics websites. It also has licensing deals with roughly 700 universities and has expanded into concessions and hospitality, ticket marketing and sales and acquired ANC and GoVision, the premier provider of large-scale and mobile LED video boards.
Interestingly, GoVision’s video boards have been utilized at the past four Presidential inaugurations, the 2015 Papal visit and numerous major sporting events such as Final Fours, Ryder Cups and all-star games.
Fortunately, Learfield has not forgotten its roots.
It still produces quality radio network programming and continues in agricultural radio, carrying on the legacy that began under Lear and Brownfield.
What a run it has been.
Missouri Sports Hall of Fame’s 2018 Enshrinement Ceremonies presented by Killian Construction
When: Sunday, January 28
Morning reception: 11 a.m., presented by Meek’s The Builder’s Choice, at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 3861 E. Stan Musial Drive in Springfield.
Afternoon festivities: 4 p.m. reception, 5 p.m. dinner & ceremony at University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center, Springfield
Class of 2018: Mike Garrett (Kansas City Chiefs), Lee Smith (St. Louis Cardinals), Howard Richards (University of Missouri football), Jim Otis (St. Louis Football Cardinals & Kansas City Chiefs), Martin Mac Donald (Conservationist, Outdoorsman, Runner), football coach Gary Barnett (Northwestern University & University of Colorado), softball coach Holly Hesse (Missouri State University), Doug Elgin (Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner), Dr. Brian Mahaffey (Missouri State University, St. Louis Cardinals), shot putter Christian Cantwell (Eldon High School/University of Missouri/Olympics), basketball standout Kerensa Barr Cassis (West Plains High School/Mizzou), Dan Lucy (KOLR 10 TV Sports Director), Rockhurst High School football coach Tony Severino, basketball coach Steve Tappmeyer (Northwest Missouri State University, UMSL), Rick Grayson (PGA teaching professional), Learfield, the Lamar High School Football Program, Springfield-Greene County Park Board, Independent Printing – John Q. Hammons Founders Award, Rick Todd of Herschend Family Entertainment – President’s Award.
Sponsorship opportunities: Tables of 10 are $1,500 and include an autographed poster (a rendering by renowned artist Dayne Dudley), recognition in the printed program and at the table. Individual tickets are $150. Numerous other sponsorships are available, including congratulatory ads, trading cards and 20-month calendars.
Call the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame: 417-889-3100.