Except for his silver hair, Bill Battle doesn't look much older than he did in 1970 when, at age 28, he became the youngest head football coach at any major school in the land. During his seven seasons at the helm, Tennessee's football fortunes waned, and the pressures for Battle's ouster mounted to the point that some fanatic dispatched a moving van to his home.
Now, a quarter century later, Battle can recount with equanimity how he got from deposed football coach to owner and CEO of the nation's dominant collegiate sports licensing business.
Seated in a well-upholstered office at his company's suburban Atlanta headquarters, Battle recalls that, after leaving Tennessee, he went into the management of a construction materials company in his native Alabama. The company was owned by the man who'd been his little league football coach, Larry Strickland. His college coach at Alabama—none other than the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant—served on its board of directors.
Strickland was very acquisition minded, and among the companies he bought was a maker of golf putters. It didn't fare very well until it obtained a license from Jack Nicklaus that extended to Golden Bear gloves and socks and then to eyewear.
"I'd never heard of licensing at that point, but I thought that's a pretty cool way to make money," Battle recollects. "Then, as luck or fate would have it, Coach Bryant came in and said that he was going to change agents. This wasn't for Alabama; it was for him personally. I talked him into letting us manage his business, and we started a licensing program around him. This was in 1981, and then I saw that there was no collegiate licensing, so that led to getting Alabama as our first school, which led to several other SEC and ACC schools coming into our program."
By 1983, Battle says, "I saw that collegiate licensing could be a very good business, but it didn't need to be in Selma, Ala., because nobody wanted to come there. So I bought it out and moved to Atlanta."
From a start with four people, Collegiate Licensing Company has grown to 65 employees and represents more than 180 colleges and universities, conferences, bowl games and the NCAA itself. Battle won't reveal CLC's revenue but claims it's paid its member institutions over $300 million since inception. "Our goal was to create a significant revenue stream for colleges and universities, and I felt that if we could do that, then it would be good for us as well," he says.
Tennessee signed on as a client in 1985—just in time to catch a huge surge in sales of tee shirts and other Vol wear following the 1986 win over Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Battle takes no credit for that but believes CLC helps it clients and licensees move merchandise over time in a variety of ways.
"What we thought we could do if we could get 40 or 50 of the right schools together, we could attract manufacturers into the collegiate market that had distribution and all retail channels, and that's really what has happened. You had the Champs and the Foot Lockers. You had J.C. Penney and Sears mid-tier stores. You had the Wal-Marts and the K-Marts, and then you had the upscale department stores and by '94 or '95 collegiate wear was in every one of them."
Retail sales, by Battle's estimate, grew from $250 million in the mid-1980s to $2.5 billion in the mid-1990s, and then came a downturn. "The licensed products category from a fashion perspective has cycled down over the past few years. Polo and Hilfiger and Nike and Timberland and those brands have become popular among kids, and licensed has not."
How come? "Well, if anybody knew what makes kids wear things..." Battle's sentence ends with a perplexed shrug.
In addition to promoting their products, CLC administers contracts with some 2,000 licensees, each of which is subject to university approval. It also collects the royalties and audits licensees to make sure they're being paid. Then there's the enforcement arm of the business that tries to root out counterfeiters.
"They basically fall into two categories," Battle says. "There are the students with little screen printers that go out on the streets the day of a game and take a shot at it. Then, there are the really serious counterfeiters who are well-organized and put people with backpacks on the streets and have a mother lode of a van circling to resupply them. Over the years we have developed great relationships with the law enforcement officers and have developed an ability to deal with that pretty effectively."
"John Doe" court orders enable CLC's agents to seize the contraband. "The schools basically call the shots as to how we proceed, so it can range from us telling you to leave, to seizing, to coming along with an officer serving you with a warrant."
Battle's son is now the president of CLC and his daughter works in the marketing department. There won't be any rogue moving vans pulling up to their homes.