Wiedmer: Thanks to Old Mill, SEC Saturdays about to pop at the seam

Wiedmer: Thanks to Old Mill, SEC Saturdays about to pop at the seam

August 4th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

SEC Southeastern Conference

An old friend knocked on my front door Thursday morning, handing me a bag of Gamecocks Popcorn as I greeted him.

"You've got to try this," said the lifelong University of South Carolina fan. "A McCallie guy started it; a couple of Baylor guys helped finance it. It's a great story and the popcorn is fabulous."

The popcorn is actually kettle corn, but despite my overgrown physique, I'm not much of a sweets guy. That doesn't mean I won't try almost anything once.

So I opened the bag. Pleasant, comforting scents of cinnamon and pure vanilla instantly warmed my nose. A quick bite assured me the corn indeed overflowed with plenty of both the sweet and salty taste the bag promised.

But great as this treat might be for Gamecocks Nation, I concluded, no self-respecting Florida Gator, Georgia Bulldog or Tennessee Volunter would ever buy Gamecocks Popcorn. Talk about your limited audience.

Yet that's also where Mike Proctor, co-owner Monty Daggett and the rest of the good folks at Old Mill Kettle Corn just down the road in Chickamauga, Ga., come in.

"We've got bags for seven total schools from the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference this fall," said Proctor, a 1991 McCallie graduate who is Old Mill's president, CEO and founder. "Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee in the SEC; Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State in the ACC.

"We hoped to have both Alabama and Auburn in football, but Golden Flake has an exclusive 'salty snacks' contract with those two schools. We'd also like to add Kentucky during basketball season."

Old Mill Kettle Corn is a case study in the kind of inspiration, desperation and perspiration that football coaches across the South continually preach to their players this time of year.

Or as Proctor, a lineman on some of the Blue Tornado's best teams, said late last week, "Whenever things have gotten tough - and we've had some tough moments starting this business - I think of something [ormer McCallie coaching great] Pete Potter used to say, that your mind can do things your body says you can't. I've leaned on that a lot the last few years."

Until the summer of 2009, Proctor was a well-compensated pharmaceutical sales rep over a three-state area. The recession caused the company to downsize, costing him his job.

But two years earlier, during a backyard party at his home, Proctor had met a kettle corn vender working the gathering. Though he didn't actively pursue a business venture with the man at that time, the tantalizing taste of that corn never left his mind.

By the fall of 2009, he and neighbor Daggett were cooking kettle corn in the driveway of Proctor's father, Charles, then bagging it in his dad's garage. The man whom Proctor first met in his backyard since has left the business. The investors with Baylor ties have asked to remain anonymous.

"I cashed in my 401(k) and off we went, even though we didn't know anything about the food business," Proctor said.

They took their first bags to the McCallie School bookstore and sold out in one day. They branched out to high school football games at McCallie, Ringgold and Heritage. They set up sales racks in local meat-and-threes such as Wally's. Grocery stores soon followed, including Earth Fare, Bi-Lo and Whole Foods. Rusty Torbett was lured away from his art teacher's post at Heritage High to handle graphic design for the company. A distribution partnership with McKee Foods was completed last year.

"We now produce 40,000 bags of popcorn a day and go through a million pounds of popcorn each year," Proctor said.

But production numbers alone don't impress the SEC. It's all about quality and branding. That brings us to the Collegiate Licensing Company, which first began looking out for the marketing arm of the nation's major college athletic departments in 1981. Founded by Bill Battle, the former UT football coach and current Alabama athletic director, it is now a part of IMG. Battle is no longer connected to CLC.

To quickly understand the power of CLC, gross sales of products tied to its nearly 200 member schools - including every SEC school except Mississippi State - totaled $4.6 billion last year.

That's one reason why CLC is now part of a potentially sea-changing lawsuit against the NCAA, CLC and EA Sports regarding college athletes' rights to profits from products that bear their likenesses.

That $4.6 billion is also why Old Mill Kettle Corn so wanted to tie itself to the SEC. Though the University of Texas was CLC's top performer in the fiscal year ending in June of this year, the SEC accounted for 11 of the next 19 schools in total revenue, including Alabama (2), Kentucky (5), LSU (6), Florida (7) and Georgia (8). Arkansas checked in at No. 10, followed by Texas A&M (12), Tennessee (15), South Carolina (16), Auburn (18) and Missouri (20).

Ohio State is the biggest school nationally not represented by CLC.

"The SEC is far and away our strongest conference," said CLC's Tyler Stinnett, who grew up on Lookout Mountain and graduated from Baylor School and the University of Tennessee. "The Big 12 and Big Ten are next, but it's not that close."

Proctor and Daggett decided in February that they were close enough to at least seven SEC and ACC schools to apply to CLC for a license to market their product bearing school names and logos. In the 2012 calendar year, CLC considered 862 such applications, approving 744 (86.3 percent).

"We were licensed in the spring," said Proctor, whose company now has 15 full-time employees and 10 part-timers. "It's been pretty hectic."

With the help of CLC, it's also been productive. Though 60 percent of its products fall into the apparel category, CLC also licenses a number of food items, including Golden Flake, our own town's MoonPies and Russell Stover candies.

With marketing assistance from CLC, Proctor's specially packaged kettle corn will reach chain grocery shelves the last week of August, just before the season kicks off for most schools. Some smaller local stores and restaurants will begin carrying the corn by Aug. 15.

In addition, during their weekly call-in shows, both Georgia coach Mark Richt and Florida coach Will Muschamp will reach into the "Old Mill Kettle Corn Mailbag" and answer one question from a fan.

Then there's the VIP Fan Experience. Old Mill will give away seven packages - one for each school - that will include two game tickets, game-day food, a pregame sideline pass and a football autographed by the winner's favorite SEC coach. The Georgia winner will attend the Bulldogs' battle with Florida, for example. The Tennessee winner will go to the Auburn game in Knoxville. More information is available at www.oldmillkettlecorn.com, or on the individual bags once they're available.

For Old Mill, there may be nothing less at stake than regional domination of the gourmet kettle corn market. For CLC, it's just another item to add to a catalog that covers everything from baby clothes to caskets and urns.

Said Stinnett: "We joke sometimes that we license everything from the cradle to the grave."

And all the Bulldogs/Gamecocks/Gators/Vols popcorn you can eat in between.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com