FARGO — The right to broadcast North Dakota State's football and basketball games on television and radio is under negotiation, but no matter which local entities win those fights, it's already guaranteed NDSU's athletic department will be a winner.
It's all about the cash.
That has less to do with who will win the rights and how much they'll pay, and everything to do with NDSU's decision last year to sign with Learfield IMG College to manage its multimedia rights and corporate partnerships.
NDSU in 2020 signed a 10-year, $21.9 million deal with Learfield. The Bison athletic department will receive $1.85 million in the first year of the deal ending this summer and the annual figure escalates over the duration of the contract.
NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said that is more revenue than the school could generate on its own selling things like broadcast rights, digital advertising, in-game sponsorships, corporate sponsorships, corporate hospitality and arena signage.
NDSU grossed $1,745,935 from those areas in 2019, Larsen said. The expenses tied to that revenue was $398,722, so the net revenue for 2019 was $1,346,213.
The difference in fiscal year 2020 — July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 — is there are no expenses related to the Learfield contract, Larsen said, so NDSU's revenue will be $1.85 million.
"We're saving money because we don't have to dedicate staff and resources to sales and managing our media rights," Larsen said. "They have people to do that."
Based in Plano, Texas, Learfield IMG College manages the multimedia rights for nearly 200 college athletic departments and conferences. What began as Learfield Communications in the 1970s, a six-station farm radio network in Missouri, evolved into a radio rights distributor for the University of Missouri and eventually through mergers and acquisitions grew into a collegiate athletic powerhouse.
When NDSU agreed in late 2019 to sign with Learfield after decades of handling its marketing, sales and broadcast rights in-house, Larsen said Learfield had experience, access to national brands and vendors, and agreements with national firms that NDSU didn't have.
"I think we’ve come to a point where some resources they have at their fingertips … we just don’t have the connections that they do," Larsen said at the time. "They also have the ability to have dedicated staff members who are selling and managing on a day-to-day basis where we don’t have the luxury to do that."
NDSU long negotiated its own TV and radio deals and sold its own advertising and corporate sponsorships.
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In 2019, NDSU made $577,000 off its TV broadcast rights deal with KVLY-TV, the local NBC affiliate owned by Gray Media Inc. of Atlanta, Larsen said. The figure was reduced to $451,200 in 2020 because of the pandemic-related challenges, according to Larsen.
In its current radio deal with Radio FM Media, the university pays the broadcaster $60,000 annually for an "air charge.” In exchange, Radio FM Media is obligated to pay NDSU 30% of gross revenues from Bison-related ancillary programming. NDSU sold and received all advertising revenue from the games, pregame and postgame shows and coaches' shows.
The athletic department received about $120,000 annually from the 30% clause since the deal was signed in 2016, Larsen said.
Aside from bringing in more revenue, partnering with Learfield simplifies things for NDSU. While working closely with NDSU — the four-person Learfield staff has offices in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex on campus and works under the banner Bison Sports Properties — Learfield is handling the bids and negotiations for the TV and radio rights currently up for grabs.
Learfield's business model is essentially betting on itself. It pays universities a flat rights fee and makes its profit by selling broadcast rights, sponsorships and advertising above that fee. There are revenue-sharing hurdles in the contract, so if Learfield sells above a specified figure, their clients get a percentage in addition to the original rights fee.
"That benefits everybody. If we can make more money, they can make more money," Bison Sports Properties general manager Josh Hartman said.
Other Missouri Valley Football Conference or Summit League schools who partner with Learfield include North Dakota, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa, Nebraska Omaha, Southern Illinois and Missouri State.
The dollar figures for Learfield deals, at least those publicly available, are wide-ranging. South Dakota State athletic director Justin Sell said it's hard to make apple-to-apple comparisons because so many factors go into them.
One of the largest factors, Sell said, is available inventory. For example, if a university has all its athletic facilities on campus, it will get a larger contract from Learfield because Learfield can collect more revenue from selling signage and advertisements. If an arena or stadium is off campus, and the school doesn't control revenue, its advertising value drops.
SDSU signed a 10-year, $13 million deal with Learfield in 2011, but renegotiated in 2017 after the new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium opened. Sell declined to share SDSU's new deal, but said he believes it ranks among the best in FCS because SDSU's major facilities are on-campus.
That is not the case at North Dakota. Because UND's arena situation is "fragmented," in the words of associate athletic director Kyle Doperalski, the school's contract with Learfield is smaller. UND's football (Alerus Center), hockey (Ralph Engelstad Arena), and basketball teams (Betty Engelstad Sioux Center) all play in facilities the school doesn't control.
Doperalski said UND realizes about $275,000-$300,000 annually from its current Learfield contract after broadcast travel and talent expenses are subtracted.
"There is limited inventory in Grand Forks because of our arena arrangements," Doperalski said. "The numbers are nuanced because our situation is different than USD, SDSU or NDSU."
The Bison football team plays in the Fargodome, which is city-owned and managed by the Fargo Dome Authority, but Hartman said NDSU and the dome have a strong working agreement that allows the school to generate its own revenue from advertisements and promotions during games.
"Bison football games are one of the bigger things held in the dome, so it's a mutually beneficial situation," Hartman said.
USD general counsel AJ Franken declined to provide figures for that school, which inked a 10-year deal with Learfield in 2011.
When SDSU entered its original deal with Learfield in 2011, it was touted as being larger than contracts signed by the University of Pittsburgh (10 years, $9.5 million) and Southern Illinois (7 years, $5 million).
Those numbers pale in comparison to large universities in power conferences. Iowa, of the Big Ten, signed a reported contract extension with Learfield in 2019. That deal paid Iowa a fee that started at $4.9 million a year and is scheduled to reach $8 million a year by the contract's final year in 2026.
Football powerhouse Alabama signed a 10-year deal with Learfield in 2014 that will net the athletic department between $150 million to $160 million over the life of the contract, according to news reports.