If you think high school sports are too slick, too big-time, or too professional, just wait. When this Ohio transplant has his way—and he will—they’re going to get slicker, bigger, and much more pro. Stephenson, the former president of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, founded Titus Sports Marketing in 2003. The company’s first major deal came a year later, when it sold naming rights for the Tyler Independent School District’s stadium to Trinity Mother Frances Health System for $1.92 million, the largest such contract for a high school ever. In September 2007 Titus also put together the Clash of Champions, a game televised on ESPNU between the best high school football team in Florida, Miami Northwestern, and the best in Texas, Southlake Carroll. Northwestern won the game (hyped as “the biggest game in the history of high school football”) 29—21, but the real winner may have been Stephenson.
Where did you get the idea for Titus?
I knew high schools were looking at ways of maximizing revenue. A lot of districts are looking to give their stadiums a face-lift—to add parking, double the concessions and restrooms, redo the field house. High schools are where colleges were fifteen years ago, and there’s a lot of lost advertising revenue because there’s nobody there to capture it. We’re pioneers. We work with the school district; we sell the assets that they direct us to sell.
The statement of purpose on your Web site reads, “Titus is the answer for corporations in need of building their market share by penetrating the hard-to-reach 12-24 demographic whose nucleus resides in high schools …” Should high schools be a target for corporations?
We’re no different from Coca-Cola or Pepsi, which ten years ago came into high school sports. What happened when those contracts were signed was you had a superintendent or an educator negotiating a marketing contract. We say, “You’re educators. Our skill is in marketing.” We come into a school district just as legal counsel is hired to represent them. We’re servants to the district.
You ran into opposition in Katy this past November. The trustees postponed finalizing a contract in which Titus would have assisted the district with everything from naming rights to event planning. What’s the difference between Katy and Tyler?
I really think it’s education. The Katy board of trustees understands who we are and what our goals are. What we found is that there are other groups outside of the district—citizen action groups—who don’t know who we are or what we do.
So it’s not, “What are you marketers doing in our high school?”
Right. The first impression people have is, “All of a sudden our athletic event will look like a Dallas Cowboys event.” That’s not our goal at all. What we do is directed by the schools. And the revenue we bring in, almost in every case, goes to the general fund, whether that goes to hiring teachers or buying office supplies or improvements to a facility.
You’ve said this will be common in five years.
I believe in five to ten years you’ll find a marketing representative in these large school districts—they’re just getting so big. The Cy-Fair School District, in northwest Houston, has almost 100,000 students. Katy is exploding. Fort Bend ISD has ten high schools. In Dallas and Austin you’re seeing significant growth.
Do you see any drawbacks to the professionalizing of high school sports?
An example of what we do was the Clash of Champions. This was a game of a lifetime for kids from Southlake Carroll and for the inner-city kids from Miami—two thirds of those kids had never been on an airplane before. We took them to the JFK museum. We tried to make it an educational field trip. We didn’t get one call saying there was too much commercialization. It was a great experience for the kids and the fans, and I think you’re gonna see a lot more of those kinds of games. You’re gonna see a lot more high school football on television.