Ohio Valley Unsung Hero: Companion caught the marketing bug early
By RICK THORP
Times Leader Sports Writer
The OVAC Rudy Mumley All-Star Football Charity Classic is, by all accounts, the largest event the bi-state conference stages each year.
It involves a plethora of football players, cheerleaders, band members, Queen of Queen contestants, former players, etc.
For years, only folks who ventured to Wheeling Island Stadium on the last Sunday night in July could see it. However, recent years have seen that change.
Television, radio, and now the Internet, have made watching the summer gleam game, now in its 69th year, as simple as pulling your smartphone from your pocket.
”It’s all pretty amazing,” said James Companion, who started Scholastic Sports Marketing with Bill Ihlenfeld in 2004. He’s been its sole owner since 2011.
As the multimedia rights holder for the OVAC, Scholastic Sports Marketing (SSM) is heavily involved in almost every facet of promoting the conference, whether it be print, broadcast or on-site.
”We are modeled after what you see at the college level,” Companion explained. ”So, universities like Ohio State and West Virginia have multimedia rights holders that serve as a one-stop-shop for sponsors to support those universities. Obviously, the difference with us is that’s college and we’re at the high school level.”
It was in high school where Companion first caught the marketing bug.
”When I was a student at Linsly I remember my mom saw a special on Ohio University’s sports administration program,” he remembered. ”I learned that you could have an actual career in sports even if you couldn’t play professionally.”
From there, that was his goal.
After graduating from the Woodsdale campus in 1990, Companion attended and played baseball at Denison University, graduating in 1994.
He went straight to Athens, where he earned his master’s degree in sports administration.
Companion’s first job was at Davidson College, where he served as assistant director for athletics marketing and promotions.
One year later, Companion moved on to the University of South Carolina where he also worked for Host Communications, a multimedia rights company.
In 1997, Companion was hired by the NCAA Division I Big South Conference as an assistant commissioner. He was promoted to associate commissioner three years later. It’s a position he still holds today, in an independent contractor capacity.
”I still help the conference with their marketing efforts,” he said.
Companion’s affiliation with the OVAC began shortly after SSM was formed. In fact, the OVAC was it’s first customer group.
”When we first started with the OVAC, we bundled everything together,” Companion recalled. ”Whereas before everything was fragmented. We put everything under one umbrella.”
”We were able to exceed the OVACs expectations right out of the gate. Seeing it all come together the first time was probably the biggest highlight of my professional career.”
Companion praised OVAC Executive Secretary Tom Ratiaczak and other members of the OVAC for allowing SSM to implement its vision.
”I still get goose bumps thing about the first (football) all-star game we did,” Companion said. ”That, combined with all the sponsors saying yes we’re on board was great.”
The revenue garnered through SSM’s efforts has helped the OVAC keep the Rudy Mumley contest one which is looked upon as one of the best in the nation.
Since then, SSM has guided the conference into a variety of other ventures, including boys’ and girls’ basketball championships, and helped bolster others that already existed.
As far as the Rudy Mumley game is concerned, SSM plays a major role, albeit a behind-the scenes one.
”It’s almost a year-round project when you factor in the customer service portion of it,” Companion explained. ”There’s a lot of planning and prep with the live television broadcast, the live radio broadcast and the internet broadcast through Play On Sports.
SSM is active in selling sponsorships for the in-stadium signage, the TV/radio broadcasts, the game programs and the public address announcements.
”Then, there are a lot of on-field activities like the Queen of Queen and the punt, pass and kick contest,” Companion explained.
It’s a lot of work, but when all is said and done, Companion views it as a win-win for everyone involved and that makes it worth while.
”We’re really proud of it,” he said.
Companion spends a lot of time in Wheeling, but is based in Charlotte, N.C. with his family. That includes his wife, Kim (Bennett), a 1989 Wheeling Central grad, and children Bennett, 13, and James III, 11.
”The kids both play a lot of sports and we’re really busy helping coach and supporting them,” Companion said. ”That’s a part-time job in itself.”
Companion and his family will return to Wheeling next month when he will be inducted into the OVAC Hall of Fame. The honor came as a complete surprise.
”It was humbling, flattering, especially when you look at the 70 years of the conference and the amazing people that have been involved with it.
”I really didn’t know what to think. I was just absolutely grateful.
”I guess it verifies we’ve done the job they were looking for.”
If you know of someone involved in sports in the Ohio Valley whom I could feature as an Ohio Valley Unsung Hero, drop me a line at email@example.com or via Twitter at RickThorp1