February 14th, 2010

Business Profile: Icon Sports Media

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Company: Icon Sports Media, Inc.
Launch date: August 1999
Became full-time operation: Same
No. of employees: 4 employees, multiple contractors, 150+ contributing photographers

When launching a new fantasy site, it might be easy to overlook an aspect such as where you will get your photos. One provider that works with a number of fantasy companies is Icon, whose Jamie Calsyn took some time recently to answer questions for FSB.com.

1. What kind of void was Icon seeking to fill in the market when the company launched in 1999?

When we launched there was only one company that was successfully marketing sports images to the professional media. We (The founders of Icon) worked at a company called Allsport Photography and broke away after that company was sold to another business. There were also numerous independent photographers who had great imagery but no way of getting these images seen by a majority of the buyers.

2. The Internet was already well in play at that point, but the way we all use it has constantly evolved since then. How has your business (and its services) had to change to match the evolving needs and demands of your customers?

Most industries deal with one fundamental technology shift, we’ve had to deal with two. In addition to the internet we have seen the emergence of digital photography. When we started, only newspaper photographers were shooting digitally. Most of our content consisted of transparencies/negatives and we shipped these hard goods to clients. This made the cost of production much higher. With the digital camera, gone is the cost of film, processing, and shipping fees. Those clients (at the time) that did utilize digital pictures only used expensive digital scans of slides. Gone is the cost to digitize film and the man-hours required to get physical slides online. As digital cameras evolved the digital images became comparable in quality to analog images. For the last 6 years we have been 100% digital, with clients accessing our images online.

3. What sort of changes have you seen in the sporting landscape that has altered your practices or the demands of your customers?

Speed of delivery. Many clients want images as fast as possible. With the entire production process from camera to image platform, that demand can be met. The constant battle is to achieve speed of delivery without sacrificing the quality of content.

4. What differentiates Icon from other photo and image providers today?

We see our clients as partners and try to offer them a specific licensing agreement and images which cater to their needs. Our competitors forget that relationships still matter and tend to offer “One size fits all” customer service and pricing.

5. How does business break down among the various sports — in terms of both your allocation of resources and the demand of your users?

Like anyone in the sports business, NFL is king when it comes to demand. NBA, MLB and college football/basketball are close behind. NHL, PGA golf, and NASCAR are also important, with Olympics and World Cup generating quite a bit of interest. Interestingly, we have seen a dramatic increase in interest for high school sports the past five years — and not just for football and basketball but all sports. As marketers and publications seek to target the teen audience, they are putting more of a spotlight on the top youth athletes.

In terms of resource allocation, we feel obliged to cover just about everything we can at a professional level, whether it be an NFL game, NASCAR race or PGA tournament. Difficulties in covering each sport vary. NFL has a pretty short season compared to baseball, which has a lot more games to cover and a longer season. The biggest challenge is NCAA sports. Generally there are 70-80 schools we feel that need coverage but this number increases every year as a number of mid-majors and non-BCS schools find success at the highest levels.

6. How has the ever-increasing trend from print outlets to online affected your user base and your service?

Dramatically! Many print outlets are shifting focus online. While the price per picture license is not as high, many clients are licensing a greater number of images. The first year of business we licensed 100 images per month and now we are licensing over 100,000 images per year worldwide. Much of this growth is directly related to online clients.

7. When did you start to see fantasy sports outlets emerge as customers?

We licensed images to various outlets as far back as eight years ago. After we attended our first FSTA conference in early 2007 we understood the dynamics of the industry. As an outsider to fantasy sports business, we were unsure of how the sports leagues viewed this segment of the industry and how we could work within it. Once we felt that we could license images without violating our media accreditation with the leagues we jumped in.

8. Judging by your attendance at events such as the recent FSTA conference, the fantasy industry must represent a decently significant source of business. For how long has Icon been reaching out to fantasy companies, and what kind of segment of your user base do they constitute?

We’ve been consistently working with fantasy companies since 2007 and it has grown into a valuable percentage of our revenue.

9. What size are the operations/outlets to which you tend to cater? Are there varying plans/rates/packages to appeal to clients at different economic and need levels?

We work with each client on an individual basis. My very first questions to the potential client are: How many images do you need and what is your budget? We have standard prices we like to charge but I want to make sure we understand what the clients’ needs are before we propose a licensing agreement. We work with individual writers as well as large media companies.

10. It’s called Icon Sports Media, but your site offers non-sports images as well. What does the non-sports segment of your business look like, or are such images simply there for when sporting outlets have such a need?

We represent many talented photographers who shoot events outside of sports, like news, concerts and entertainment. We give them an opportunity to license these images to our network of clients. But we are first and foremost a sports provider focusing on what we know and do best.