Sunday, July 03, 2005
Focused on the playing field
With help from the Web, a North Carolina company has turned Tech's archives into a treasure for fans.
It all started with a closet.
An untapped trove of photography tucked away in Duke University's Cameron Indoor Stadium changed the focus of Sue Harnett's life -- and heralded a new form of publicity for Virginia Tech.
Harnett, a Duke alumna who set records playing college basketball until 1991, realized that photos of athletic moments at the nation's great universities were just waiting to find a home.
"We've got this great asset," she remembers thinking. "Now let's turn it into a tremendous product."
With that goal, Harnett joined forces and funds with two friends, launched a Web site and jumped into business in 2002 -- securing her alma mater as the first customer.
Last fall, Virginia Tech entered the picture with hokiephotos.com, becoming the fourth school to work with Harnett's Durham, N.C., company, Replay Photos.
Through the magic of the Internet, the business sells archived athletic and campus photos, with or without frames, for six universities. Harnett has signed four additional schools during the past month, and at least two more have given her verbal commitments. She hopes to boost Replay's network to between 15 and 20 schools by the end of the year.
"People love the photography," said Liz Arndt, a partner in the company. "It always just strikes, really strikes a place with somebody."
For Tech students, fans and alumni, it's all about the Hokie Bird. One of the top sellers on hokiephotos.com is a snapshot of the mascot leaning against a goalpost after the football team's victory over Louisiana State University in 2001.
Among 126 other Replay images of Tech history, shot by university photographers or culled from the annals of the athletic department, are pictures of the university's first football all-American, its teams from as far back as 1896, and its recent basketball victory over Duke.
But visitors to the site likely will notice some holes.
Current Tech athletes are conspicuously absent from the pages of hokiephotos.com, and some key players from the past don't make an appearance.
Yes, the photos are out there. That doesn't mean Harnett can use them.
NCAA regulations deny current student-athletes eligibility if they allow their name or image to be used for commercial purposes.
Another barrier: Virginia law clearly protects people's names and images. If Replay marketed images of a past Tech football player without his permission, the company would be leaving itself open to lawsuits -- and losses.
That's not a risk Harnett wants to take. So Replay, with help from Matt Spiers, associate editor of Hokie Sports The Newspaper, sends a release to each athlete noticeably featured in the photos.
"We are definitely erring on the side of caution," said Spiers, who helps handpick Tech photos for the Web site. "We don't want to do anything that's going to get the department in trouble."
Following the rules doesn't stop Tech from profiting from the deal -- Replay cuts its member schools regular licensing checks based on purchases from the Web site.
Once releases are signed and photos are posted, an online shopper surfs. Chooses. Points.
And clicks -- buying a 16-by-20-inch framed photo of fireworks over Lane Stadium for $175, a slice of which heads to the home of the Hokies.
"This revenue stream is not going to be a million-dollar revenue stream," Tech associate athletic director Dave Chambers said of the school's cut from Replay Photos.
"But it's one of many revenue streams that ultimately fills up the river."
Harnett wouldn't say what percentage of a sale goes back to the school, but with a 2004-05 budget of about $36 million, it's unlikely that Tech's athletic department even felt the trickle of Replay revenue into its ocean of funding.
"If you were to weigh the revenue versus the benefit to the fan, I think clearly the benefit to the fan is there with this," Chambers said.
Perhaps the best thing hokiephotos.com brings Tech is attention. Chambers wants to magnify this by eventually touting the site on the big screens at games. And Harnett would like to see Replay's products sold in the campus bookstore -- a scheme already in place at a few member schools.
As the company expands its technology and signs large schools like Tech, success is slowly coming into focus.
Harnett said Replay's revenue went up 265 percent between 2003 and '04 -- not surprising, as the company didn't launch its first Web site, bluedevilphotos.com, until January 2003.
Really, she and her partners are riding on a long-term vision. So, it seems, is Chambers who has high hopes for hokiephotos.com.
"It changes every minute, and if you don't like something, it's not set in stone," he said. "And it's constantly evolving.
"We're just gonna keep working on it."