Big Red Business: Learfield dominates the Big Ten in Multimedia deals
One player dominates the Big Ten Conference like no other when it comes to broadcasting rights, creating a social media presence, stadium signage, suite deals, program ads, and much, much more.
The game day goliath? Learfield.
Learfield, as it’s now called following a series of mergers, holds the multimedia rights with 11 of the 14 conference teams, and handles sponsorship rights, advertising and an array of other business with the conference itself.
The relationships are for the most part long, deep, and lucrative from Ohio State down the line to Rutgers.
The three schools that have gone a different direction? Nebraska, of course, but also Michigan State, and Maryland. The Spartans and Terps are multimedia partners with Playfly Sports.
Which leaves Nebraska, once a member of the Learfield network until 2021 when it broke up and became one of the few – or perhaps the only – Power Five school to create an in-house multimedia department. Fast-forward to recent weeks when Nebraska had a deal and then didn’t with JMI Sports worth $200 million in guaranteed money over 12 years, or about $17 million a year, JMI confirmed to HuskerOnline.
Why does any of this matter to fans?
The short answer: Because multimedia sponsorships mean big money – sometimes with guarantees and bonus dollars – for the schools and the conference. And as schools continue to rebuild their financial coffers from the pandemic, every dollar of revenue helps.
As for the long answer, partnering with the likes of Learfield, PlayFly, and JMI, is all about pushing the brand nationwide through advertising, suite seats, donations, merchandising, naming rights, name-image-likeness opportunities, and more. That’s why most schools rely on multimedia business partners to bring home the dollars rather than trying to run the business on their own.
Even a school like Nebraska – one of the few to operate profitably – counts on that money to pay a lot of bills.
Learfield's the leader
How would Nebraska’s proposed $200 million deal with JMI have stacked up with the rest of the schools in the Big Ten? And how would the other schools compare with the $15 million in gross revenue that Nebraska said it expects to generate from its in-house team in its current fiscal year that ends June 30?
The answers to those questions are difficult to determine.
“We haven’t ever, and still do not, disclose any financials or terms related to our school or sponsor agreements,” said Jennifer Duncan, a Learfield spokesman.
She said only that all of Learfield’s relationships with Big Ten schools “are very long,” partly the result of Learfield’s 2018 merger with IMG College. The rebranded company is now called Learfield, and it dominates the multimedia landscape with more than 200 college and university partners.
Learfield operates almost like a franchise model, with a director and staff on-site, including four to six or more account executives dedicated to selling a school’s brand.
HuskerOnline surveyed each Big Ten school (aside from Nebraska) to gauge the financial value of their multimedia partnerships. How much money is guaranteed to the school? Is there revenue sharing? Bonus money? What’s the length of the contract?
Only a handful of schools responded, despite repeated requests for comment in some cases.
*Michigan. The Wolverine’s ties to Learfield date to 2001 through what was then Host Communications. The current contract, which was extended in fall 2020, runs through 2031, said Kurt Svoboda, an athletic department spokesman.
As for the value, Svoboda said it is “really hard to place a yearly dollar figure on it because of the nature of the revenue share combined with the pandemic.”
Offering some clarity, Svoboda said Michigan’s total “corporate sponsorship revenue in the fiscal year 2021 was $17.6 million, which might be an okay baseline given the global upheaval.”
While not calling it a signing bonus, he also said Michigan also received “the first of several additional payments shortly after renewing its partnership” with Learfield in 2020.
*Illinois. The Fighting Illini have been aligned with Learfield since 2012. The current agreement runs through this June, but both sides are working on an extension, said Kent Brown, an athletic department spokesman.
The current agreement “has both a guarantee and revenue share,” Brown said, although he declined to provide details. He also said there was a signing bonus at the time the contract was approved ten years ago. Until then, Illinois had operated an in-house marketing program.
Brown said the partnership with Learfield has benefited the athletic department. “We have more sponsorships from national companies and national (advertising) campaigns by using Learfield,” Brown said. “It was difficult for Illinois to get in front of national advertisers while we were doing it in-house.”
*Iowa. The Hawkeyes are under contract with Learfield, and the two have partnered since 1997, spokesman Steven Roe said. He declined to elaborate.
*Wisconsin. The Badgers, another longtime partner with Learfield, recently extended its contract through June 2029. As part of the deal, Learfield is pursuing naming rights for Camp Randall Stadium’s new south end zone renovation.
The newly renovated space at the stadium will debut this fall and include a field-level club, premium seating, covered loge boxes, a loge club and terrace level, the university said.
Michigan State was one of the last schools to manage its multimedia and broadcasting rights in-house before Nebraska headed down that path.
But in 2016, the Spartans shifted to a third-party model which is now PlayFly Sports.
PlayFly, lists a smaller number of schools as clients, including LSU, Southern California and Maryland, which couldn’t be reached for comment.
“There are a lot of inherent challenges of doing business in-house,” said Paul Schager, Michigan State’s executive associate athletic director for external operations. “No longer is (marketing) simply a cash payment for a sign at the stadium. It requires more time and energy with a dedicated sales staff.”
Schager said Michigan State has had “nothing but positive interactions with PlayFly. While not disclosing specific financial results, Schager said PlayFly has “met expectations” and is performing at a high level mostly through revenue-sharing deals.
Like all Power Five schools, Michigan State is trying to find its footings in name, image and likeness deals for its athletes and PlayFly “is in tune with this,” he said.
When Nebraska officials started seriously exploring plans to create an in-house multimedia operation, they sought and received advice from Schager among others. While he hasn’t advised Nebraska on what to do now, he’s confident the athletic department will figure it out.
“There are good people at Nebraska,” he said. “They’re trying to adjust to a changing environment.”
Alberts explains the situation
For now, Nebraska’s deal with JMI appears dead for now, judging by the recent comments from athletic director Trev Alberts. What’s next and with whom?
During the spring Red-White scrimmage on April 9, here’s what Alberts told HuskerOnline publisher Sean Callahan in a lengthy response about why the talks ended with JMI:
“We have a strong brand and we have a lot of people that are interested,” Alberts said, without naming any possible suitors. “JMI is a great company. (Chief executive) Erik Judson is a good person, and he’s a friend. Unfortunately, I made a commitment to myself and our staff that we will not make decisions or do anything that we don’t think is in the best long-term interest of the University of Nebraska.”
He continued: “It got to the point where I asked our lawyers and our CFO, ‘is this in the best interest of Nebraska?’ And the answer was ‘no.’ If that’s the case, we will not do deals. I think there is interest, and by the way, we have a great in-house team that’s done a remarkable job.”
“We are going to continue to assess that, so as you can imagine every piece of revenue that we can get at, and every expense that we can eliminate that’s unnecessary is going to be critically important as we move forward in this new world of reallocation of resources from the institution that go directly to the player. Of course, we support that, but those are the new realities that all of us are facing, that we need to find strategies and we need to be entrepreneurial.”
NIL deals are looming
Alberts said there will be “additional announcements in the future that will detail some of our efforts. We will not fall behind anybody nationally relative to support and opportunities for young people to be successful in the classroom, on the field, monetizing their NIL – that’s who we are, and we are going to do what it takes.”
Alberts may have been referring to a new Nebraska Athletics partnership with Altius Sports Partners, a name, image and likeness advisory and education firm.
Nebraska said the Altius NIL platform includes ongoing guidance, assessment of departmental initiatives, corporate partner strategies, as well as comprehensive and customized educational services benefitting all internal and external Nebraska stakeholders as the NIL space continues to change.
Alberts also addressed the likelihood of Nebraska cutting a deal with a multimedia partner by the beginning of its new fiscal year on July 1?
“A lot of these partnerships, they are not just a two-year deal,” Alberts said. “These are 12-year deals. That’s why the details of the agreement really matter. If you are going to sign up to 12 years with a partner, they have to be in the best interest of the University of Nebraska.”
“What we are all trying to figure out is when you think about the challenge of name, image, and likeness and how that impacts your (multimedia rights) partners,” said Alberts. “We don’t necessarily want to create internal competition. There’s a lot to learn, but I think we’ll get to the right solution, and we’ll do what’s best for Nebraska.”
JMI remains interested
Erik Judson, JMI’s chief executive responded to Alberts’ remarks with this statement exclusively to HuskerOnline:
“I appreciate the comments Trev made about why our negotiations did not result in a partnership. The complexity of this deal was just too much to overcome at a time when collegiate athletics is more dynamic than ever, and we were talking about a 12-year commitment.”
“Even though we agreed to pay a $200 million guarantee over the next 12 years, I respect the conclusion of Trev and his team because important issues were not resolved and neither party believed they had the necessary protections in place ahead of our deadline to get an agreement completed.
“We continue to believe that the University of Nebraska is an incredible brand, and we remain very interested in finding a path to partner with Trev and his team. As a few weeks have passed, I am still honored that Trev selected JMI Sports as the right fit for Nebraska athletics to start negotiations and that we had a chance to work with their team toward a partnership. At the same time, I am devastated that we could not get the ball across the goal line.”
Steve Rosen covers the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve Rosen at email@example.com.