Landmark Deal Gives Merchandising/Licensing Distributor +/- 95% of the U.S. College Marketplace


Winning Streak Sports (a Granite Bridge Partners company) has announced an exclusive five-year partnership and representation agreement with Jardine Associates (the largest collegiate merchandising and licensing distributor in the United States). The landmark deal will result in the premium hard goods marketer and manufacturer servicing nearly 95% of the total U.S. collegiate marketplace (consists of official college bookstores and campus markets), including Jardine's largest retail clients Barnes & Noble College and Follett Corporation (+ numerous independent operators). The scale gained makes Winning Streak - a company that markets, manufacturers and distributes high end premium embroidered flock wool banners and pennants - the top retailer in the category and one of the elite distributors in the $4.6 billion collegiate licensing retail space.

Howie Long-Short: The excitement surrounding this deal stems from opportunity perceived. Winning Streak Sports' Chris Lencheski became Chief Executive Officer in March 2019 after having served as an independent director and investing alongside Granite Bridge. Lencheski explained that conversations with senior executives at several well-known sports merchandising e-retailers and media groups indicated that there is a near “universal belief college sports is a massive growth vertical. Licensing has an almost one-to-one relationship with media rights” and as we’re seeing with CBS’ SEC package, the value of collegiate broadcast rights is not yet slowing down.

Winning Streak Sports owns perhaps the most robust portfolio of merchandising and licensing rights across pro sports (think: NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, EPL, IndyCar), but prior to this deal being signed the company was missing out on the opportunity to reach millions of students with “unprecedented discretionary income.” That’s because between 2015 and 2019 it lost nearly one thousand collegiate bookstore and campus market accounts. The lack of a flock product (think: style of pennant/banner from 1920s and 1930s) within their line prevented the company from retaining those schools’ customers and more importantly their retail bookstore operators. The attrition of the college business was concerning to Lencheski as both a Board Member and then as CEO because as he noted “[college sports is] the one segment of the sports retail industry that literally regenerates on an annual basis; and the emotional attachment [between the school] and incoming freshman and new Alumnus is immediate and forever.”

The realization that the college marketplace “required a historical look” led Lencheski and Co. to develop a strategy that would introduce and market a flock product, one the company now sells under its ‘Varsity Vault’ brand (which is in 7,000+ stores). Having a second collection has allowed the company to reach more fans. While they still sell “the highest quality embroidered products in the [pennants and banners] category” under the Winning Streak brand, ‘Varsity Vault by Winning Streak’ can be leveraged to address “a more traditional product at a lower price point.” 

Winning Streak’s social commerce and digital approach is designed to ultimately increase athletic department revenues. Lencheski said “students on a college campus are some of the smartest buyers in the retail space.” [To reach them effectively, the messaging] “needs to be delivered in a tone that resinates and it needs to be done authentically 24/7/365, not just around a championship event.” By establishing the company as an organic presence on campus on multiple platforms, Winning Streak drives more traffic into the bookstore, to campus markets and their affiliated e-commerce businesses.

Winning Streak’s digital assets (along with their production, storage and shipping capabilities) also help partner schools go direct-to-consumer with custom embroidered products (think: class year). Lencheski explained that there had previously been “some leakage amongst the highest level [retail] products and certain athletic departments," but by allowing licensees to up-sell and promote their own exclusive products everyone makes more money (and the schools can do it without taking on any additional financial risk). The model has proven successful at Texas A&M with the creation of Word on the street is there are now seven other SEC schools, as well as some in the Big Ten, looking to follow their lead.

It’s not surprising to hear that more than half of Southeastern Conference athletic departments are interested in taking a more active approach to merchandising and licensing because reacquiring the exclusive rights to college bookstores and campus markets is viewed by insiders as the next major revenue stream athletic departments can tap into. Lencheski explained “they’re called bookstores, but they’re really gigantic themed entertainment retail centers [and their rights are particularly valuable because] they have a captured market.” Remember, unlike Target - which has a natural competitor in Walmart - there is no competition on a college campus; there’s only a few places to shop (all under control of the same operator) and most students lack the transportation to do their shopping off-campus. 

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