SBJ/February 27-March 4, 2012/Colleges

Learfield, IMG in the race for Illinois’ rights

The University of Illinois is shaping up as a fertile battleground for multimedia rights holders Learfield Sports and IMG College.

Illinois, one of the few remaining schools to handle its marketing and media rights in-house, issued a request for proposal in December to outsource those rights, and received bids within the last two weeks.

Illini Orange may soon see new green from multimedia rights.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The school is processing those bids from three competitors: IMG College, Learfield and startup company Rockbridge Sports Group. The finalists will make presentations in March and the school hopes to make a decision by the end of March.

A new deal, which could include the school’s radio, sponsorship, signage, promotional rights, hospitality and other assets, likely will start July 1, the beginning of the school’s fiscal year.

“When you look at the resources that these companies can bring to bear, we just don’t have that in our current setup,” said Warren Hood, Illinois’ associate athletic director for external operations. “We really have one and a half people working on this and they have other things on their plate in addition.”

Both Learfield and IMG College, the two giants in the college multimedia rights business, have reason to be optimistic in a hard-to-handicap bid process.

Learfield already owns the rights to seven Big Ten schools, as well as the conference’s rights, so its foothold in the conference is strong and influential. The company also is beginning to work with the Big Ten Network to sell media advertising to go with its school and conference sponsorship packages (see related story).

IMG College has the deeper relationship with Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas. IMG acquired the rights to the University of Cincinnati in 2009 when Thomas was AD there. Thomas left Cincinnati to go to Illinois last August.
In the Big Ten, IMG College doesn’t own the volume that Learfield has, but its deals at Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State represent some of the conference’s premier brands.

The third competitor, Rockbridge Sports Group, was formed in recent months by co-founders David Johnston and Rich Klein, a pair of former CBS Collegiate Sports Properties executives who left CBS late last year to start their own business.

Multimedia rights for Big Ten schools bring anywhere from $4 million to $7 million a year in most cases, although Ohio State’s deal is for nearly $11 million a year. Illinois would not say what it makes by selling its rights in-house.
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