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Oliver Luck drove media rights contract, WVU chairman says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia University Board of Governors Chairman Drew Payne said Thursday he never asked WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck or anyone else to award a lucrative media rights contract that Payne could benefit from financially.

Payne said he never meddled in a WVU panel's decision to sign a tentative agreement with Winston Salem, N.C.-based IMG College, which is expected to partner with West Virginia Media Holdings. Payne serves on West Virginia Media's board of directors and formerly held a major stake in the Charleston-based media firm. 

"I didn't care who got the contract," Payne told the Gazette during an interview at his downtown Charleston office Thursday afternoon. "I wasn't involved in any way, shape or form."

Payne said Luck led the push to bid out the university's third-tier media rights -- now handled by Mountaineer Sports Network, which was operated by WVU.

"Oliver handled this. He thought we should bid it out," Payne said. "Oliver drove this."

Luck headed a six-member committee that reviewed bids for the media rights contract and recommended IMG. The university and IMG have signed a non-binding agreement, and the deal is expected to be finalized later this month.

Payne said he has talked to Luck about the contract, but nobody else.

"I purposefully stayed away from this," Payne said. "You can ask anyone on that committee if I called them or tried to pressure them. I have not."

Payne said WVU would make $5 million a year under the new contract with IMG.

"The winner is WVU," he said. "They're getting $5 million more every year. And I did something wrong? I don't believe so."

The third-tier contract -- valued at more than $110 million over 12 years -- covers radio broadcast rights, and television rights for some non-conference football and basketball games. The contract also covers television coverage of non-revenue sports, coaches' shows, signage, online content, game-day magazine print rights and seatback sales. 

On Thursday, Payne confirmed that IMG was in talks with West Virginia Media as a potential partner on the deal with WVU. Payne said chances were "good" that IMG and West Virginia Media would reach an agreement.

"But as of this [Thursday] morning, they didn't have it yet," Payne said.

Payne said he wasn't privy to the negotiations, which are being handled by West Virginia Media President Bray Cary.

"I don't ask," Payne said. "I'm not updated. It's none of my business."

Payne said Cary and IMG College President Ben Sutton Jr. are longtime acquaintances.

They both started out as sports media entrepreneurs in North Carolina. Sutton founded ISP Sports, which was purchased by IMG, a global sports media conglomerate, in 2010. Cary founded a Charlotte, N.C.-based company called Creative Sports, which syndicated televised coverage of college football and basketball games. Cary sold the company to ESPN in 1994.

Payne said it makes sense for West Virginia Media to partner with IMG.

West Virginia Media already produces weekly television shows for WVU football coach Dana Holgorsen and men's basketball coach Bob Huggins. The Charleston-based media company also televised WVU's Blue-Gold football scrimmage in April.

West Virginia Media owns four television stations in the state, and publishes the State Journal newspaper.

"They have a leg up because they have television stations throughout the state and because of all the resources and capital they have," Payne said.

Nine companies bid on the WVU media rights contract.

Payne said West Virginia Media would have tried to partner with the other companies, if IMG hadn't won the contract.

He said IMG College subcontracts with smaller media companies on its media contracts with other universities across the U.S.

IMG partners with Bristol Broadcasting on a contract with Marshall University, he said.

"IMG just acts as the clearinghouse," Payne said Thursday.

Payne said he held a major stake in West Virginia Media until last year, when the company paid off a loan from him. He said he now has "less than $500,000" invested in West Virginia Media.

"It's not a major part of my investment portfolio," said Payne, who also is president of Payne-Gallatin Co. and Horse Creek Land & Mining Co. "West Virginia Media doesn't even pay a dividend. We haven't gotten a dividend in 10 years."

Payne said that WVU was one of only two universities -- the other being Michigan State University -- that didn't have a third-tier media rights partner.

"We've let everybody else figure this out and get it right," Payne said. "We're the last one to do it. I care about the university, and I'm for anything that will make it better."   

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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