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McFeely blog: UND will sever ties with Learfield, handle its own multimedia rights deals

Athletic department will combine assets with Ralph Engelstad Arena in sales and marketing in an effort to streamline the process for both UND and its corporate partners.

Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. Forum News Service file photo
Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.
Forum News Service file photo
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FARGO — The University of North Dakota athletic department will end its relationship with Learfield IMG College, joining a handful of schools returning to the old business model of negotiating its own mulitmedia rights deals and selling sponsorships instead of contracting with a third party.

Concurrent with that move, the athletic department will combine assets with Ralph Engelstad Arena in sales and marketing in an effort to streamline the process for both UND and its corporate partners.

"The object is to have more flexibility and to capitalize on relationships," UND's associate athletic director for external operations Kyle Doperalski said.

Multimedia rights in college athletics cover everything from television and radio broadcasts to signage and advertising in stadiums to intellectual property, digital media and more.

For the last 10 years, UND has contracted with an outside company — its current iteration is Missouri-based Learfield IMG College — to negotiate its media rights and corporate sponsorships. With the contract expiring, the school will handle those duties internally.

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"After months of discussion, we came to the conclusion we could do those things ourselves. It will give us more flexibility and we'll be able to control our own destiny, so to speak, in a few aspects," Doperalski said.

Historically, universities negotiated with media companies to broadcast games and had staff dedicated to selling sponsorships and in-game advertising. As college athletics grew and media became more fragmented, a handful of companies like Learfield offered to handle those duties in exchange for a fee.

Learfield pays schools an annual flat fee to handle negotiations and sales. Its profits come from taking in more money from media, sponsorships and advertising than it pays to the school.

North Dakota State in 2020 signed a 10-year, $21.9 million deal with Learfield. The Bison athletic department received $1.85 million in the first year of the deal, with the figure escalating annually over the duration of the contract.

Bison athletic director Matt Larsen said the deal with Learfield brought in more money than NDSU would've realized on its own and it freed NDSU staff from having to sell and maintain corporate sponsorships.

UND realized a smaller cut from Learfield, netting between $275,000 and $300,000 a year, because its arena situation is so fragmented. The school doesn't control its hockey (Ralph Engelstad Arena), basketball (Betty Engelstad Sioux Center) or football (Alerus Center) venues so the inventory that can be sold on the school's behalf is small, limiting Learfield's potential revenue.

The hockey and basketball arenas are owned by the Engelstad Family Foundation while the Alerus Center is owned by the city of Grand Forks.

The fragmentation is, in part, why UND will combine assets with Engelstad Arena. It will mean fewer salespeople approaching sponsors and potential clients, while making it simpler for corporate partners to deal with the university.

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Doperalski said one challenge in Grand Forks is that multiple entities are attempting to sell UND or UND-related events to businesses because of the arena fragmentation. Representatives from Learfield, REA, the Alerus, UND and media partner Midco Sports might all approach a corporate partner seeking sponsorship dollars.

"You had all these groups quote-unquote competing with each other," Doperalski said. "The ultimate scenario is to combine them all so we're all moving in the same direction. And from our corporate partners' standpoint, it could be cumbersome dealing with all these different entities."

UND hopes sunsetting its partnership with Learfield and combining its assets with REA will mean more revenue in the long term.

While Learfield IMG remains the industry standard, some schools have taken their multimedia rights in-house in an attempt to keep more revenue. Most famously, the University of Nebraska mostly severed ties with Learfield in 2021 after 15 years. The Cornhuskers were believed to be the first Power Five school to make such move. In the final six years of its contract with Learfield, Nebraska was reported to have been paid $72 million.

An investigative report by the sports business publication Sportico revealed that Learfield made more than $6 million off its deal with Nebraska in both fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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