SBJ/April 2 - 8, 2007/This Weeks News

ESPN Regional seeking partners for its school deals

ESPN Regional Television, an ESPN Inc. subsidiary that owns multimedia rights at the universities of Kansas, Oregon and South Florida, is seeking a partner for those sports properties, sources say.

ISP Sports, Host Communications and Learfield Sports have emerged as candidates to partner with ESPN Regional at one or perhaps all three schools. It’s believed that ESPN Regional’s talks are part of an overall reassessment of its university rights holder operation.

It’s expected that ESPN Regional would cede operating control of these university properties to the new partner, sources said. Pete Derzis, senior vice president and general manager at ESPN Regional, declined to comment.

Joint ventures among competitors are not unusual. ISP and Learfield partner on a number of university properties, with one normally taking majority control. ISP recently won the bid for Florida State, for example, and will have 75 percent control, with Learfield owning 25 percent.

Those in the business say that having a minority partner mitigates the risk for the lead rights holder, given the multimillion-dollar guarantees they’re paying schools.

Kansas is in the second year of a seven-year deal with ESPN Regional that pays the school a total of $40 million. Jim Marchiony, KU’s associate athletic director for external affairs, had no comment on the negotiations, other than to say the school will have a voice in any decision.

At one time, ESPN Regional was close to finalizing a joint deal with ISP and Learfield for the Kansas property, but sources say that Learfield’s properties at rivals Missouri and Kansas State became a concern for Kansas officials.

Learfield even posted an item on its internal blog recently that indicated it had acquired the rights to Kansas athletics, but it subsequently was removed and KU officials called it premature and inaccurate.

Oregon and South Florida are nearing the end of their contracts. Oregon has a year left, while USF is in the final year of its deal. It’s uncertain if ESPN Regional’s new partner will buy into the existing contracts and flip those schools into completely new deals.

ESPN Regional owns rights in the Big 12 and Big East conferences, other smaller conferences and a handful of bowl games, as well as the Old Spice Classic, an eight-team college basketball tournament, and other basketball events.

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