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How College Sports Photos Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business

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4 min read

This story appears in the November 2011 issue of . Subscribe »

As an All-American basketball player for Duke University in the late 1980s and early '90s, Sue Harnett knew how to take great shots. Today, as president of a 16-person photo reproduction company in Durham, N.C., she's still a shot doctor of sorts.

Her company, Replay Photos, builds and manages online photo stores for college athletic departments and professional sports teams. Replay also has exclusive licensing rights to the GigaPixel FanCam, which augments traditional online storefronts with social media applications that allow fans to find and tag themselves in high-definition crowd shots.

"Everyone loves capturing the 'big game' or the 'big event' into something they can have forever," Harnett says. "For us, it's all about sharing those moments."

The idea for Replay came into focus in 2002. Harnett was working as a healthcare administrator and volunteering for Duke's athletic department in her spare time. The athletic director asked her to come up with new ways to identify revenue sources. After wandering through the archives, it hit her: all the old sports photos had to be worth something.

With personal savings and help from her two original partners, Harnett spent months compiling images into a database for an online photo store. She hired a programmer (who became the company's lead developer) to build an e-commerce engine that could run the site. And in 2005, she tanked her healthcare job to work on Replay full time.

The company's early goals were modest and only focused on Duke's photos (Harnett paid the school a licensing fee for any she sold). Over the next few years, as she pulled in funding from angel investors, Harnett added staff, enhanced the model and replicated it for other schools.

Now fans can purchase everything from framed prints to giant decals to mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with memorable images from their big day or night out.

Then there's FanCam. In early 2011, Replay inked an exclusive five-year license with South Africa-based FanTech to sell its FanCam images in the U.S. The technology takes 360-degree, 5-billion-pixel images of crowds at sporting events. (Replay also put the FanCam to work last summer for several shows during U2's 360° Tour.) Fans who attend the events can zoom around and in on the image to find themselves in the crowd. Then they can purchase the picture or tag themselves in versions of the image posted on Facebook or Twitter.

Harnett declines to share financials, but describes her company as a "multimillion-dollar business," noting that revenue has climbed 25 to 30 percent year over year.

To support these claims, she cites the firm's client list--at last check, it included all of the franchises in the NFL and NBA, more than 140 colleges and universities and ESPN's traveling College GameDay program, which was expected to use FanCam weekly on location this fall.

The photo sales are found money for Replay customers. "We weren't selling these kinds of things previously, so every dollar we earn through them is a bonus," says Michelle Andres, vice president of digital media for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. "The more we win, the more we expect those revenues to climb."

In the coming months, Replay's client list will expand to sports such as soccer and running. Harnett says Replay is also experimenting with ways to leverage FanCam images for charity; when fans tag themselves in one of the images, a sponsor could donate a certain amount of money to a nonprofit organization.

Clearly, the shot doc has her eye on the scoreboard--and she plans to lead all the way.

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