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WVU again awards media rights to IMG

By Staff reports

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia University struck an $80 million sports media rights deal Thursday with North Carolina-based IMG College, the same company selected earlier this year before an attorney general's office review of bid-rigging allegations prompted WVU to solicit contract proposals a second time.

IMG will partner on the 12-year deal with West Virginia Media Holdings, which has television stations across the state and has shareholders with ties to WVU's Board of Governors. The Charleston-based media firm will develop TV programming for WVU athletic events, the university said. 

The media rights contract covers radio broadcast rights, coaches' shows, at least one televised non-conference football game each year, and men's and women's basketball games not picked up by national networks.

IMG, which runs the largest independent sports radio network in the U.S., will take over radio broadcasts of football and basketball games. The Mountaineer Sports Network and partner West Virginia Radio Corp., which has filed suit against WVU to block the IMG deal, handled the radio broadcasts for decades. 

The contract takes effect later this summer, for the 2013-14 school year. WVU's first football game is Aug. 31 against William & Mary.

An IMG spokesman said Thursday the company hasn't made any decisions about whether to hire Mountaineer Sports Network's stable of broadcasters, including popular play-by-play announcer Tony Caridi, who's known as the "Voice of the Mountaineers." 

IMG also would not comment on what radio stations in West Virginia will carry WVU football and basketball games this fall. West Virginia Radio owns and operates more than 30 radio stations across the state, but the Morgantown-based company's ongoing lawsuit against WVU and West Virginia Media could prompt IMG to sign broadcast agreements with other stations.

"We happily signed the agreement a few hours ago, and now will be working on a number of elements to support West Virginia as football season fast approaches," said IMG spokesman Andrew Giangola in an email to the Gazette Thursday afternoon.

IMG also will handle pre- and post-game football and basketball shows previously broadcast by West Virginia Radio and its affiliate stations. Broadcasters Hoppy Kercheval, Fred Persinger, Jeff Jenkins and Kyle Wiggs are expected to stay with West Virginia Radio and not join IMG's new lineup.

In a release, Winston Salem, N.C.-based IMG said it's "identifying a dedicated team to be based in Morgantown." IMG handles media rights for more than 90 universities, including Big 12 Conference schools such as Baylor, Kansas, TCU and Texas.

"West Virginia is one of the last major schools to handle multimedia and sponsorship sales in house," said Ben Sutton Jr., president of IMG College. "The university's decision to entrust IMG to grow its sponsor and revenue base while building the school brand continues to validate IMG's collegiate services and burgeoning national marketing platform."

The third-tier media rights deal also covers media guides and schedules, social media and websites, corporate sponsorships, stadium and scoreboard signs, game-day promotions and other advertising at athletic facilities, WVU said in a release.

The deal lets WVU retain existing corporate sponsorships for sports apparel and footwear.

"It was time for WVU athletics to grow our multimedia and sponsorship sales, especially with our recent move to the Big 12 conference," athletic director Oliver Luck said in a prepared statement. "…WVU now has the opportunity to expand its revenue base by engaging new national sponsors while building our athletic and university brand."

WVU officials declined to discuss the contract's details or answer the Gazette's questions about the IMG deal Thursday. A university spokesman told the newspaper to file a Freedom of Information Act request with WVU's legal department.

Last month, West Virginia Radio Corp. -- the longtime broadcaster of WVU sporting events -- sued WVU officials and West Virginia Media, and asked a judge to stop WVU from re-awarding the contract. In the complaint, the radio company – owned by Morgantown businessman John Raese -- called the re-bid a sham and asked a judge to force WVU to bar West Virginia Media and IMG from bidding on the contract a second time.

On Thursday, Raese's camp had little to say about WVU's $80 million deal with IMG.

"This is an issue we will address in litigation," said Bob Gwynne, a lawyer for Raese-owned Greer Industries.

WVU initially signed a tentative third-tier media rights deal with IMG in January.

In April, the university announced it would re-bid the multimillion-dollar contract after West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey released a report, finding WVU officials made "significant errors" while bidding out the university's third-tier rights -- a contract that had been valued at $110 million over 12 years. However, Morrisey concluded there was "no intentional wrongdoing" by those same university administrators.

According to Morrisey's report, a three-member committee –Luck and two other athletic department administrators -- appointed to analyze the media rights bids was changed amid the evaluation. Three new members were added, which "may have materially affected the outcome of the decision," Morrisey said. Two members never voted to award the contract to IMG -- the same two athletic department administrators who served on the initial three-member panel.

Morrisey's report also found that then-Board of Governors Chairman Drew Payne had a conflict of interest because of his stake in West Virginia Media, which owns four television stations and the State Journal newspaper. WVU board member David Alvarez also holds shares of West Virginia Media.

Morrisey concluded that Payne and Alvarez should have stepped aside from all discussions about the media rights contract while the committee evaluated bids.

In addition to being a member of the WVU board, Payne is a member of West Virginia Media's board of directors. His term as WVU board chairman ended last month, and he was replaced by James Dailey II.

Payne had said that Raese challenged WVU's media rights deal because West Virginia Radio didn't want to give up its "sweetheart deal" with the university.

To re-bid the contract, WVU set up a new evaluation committee and appointed a new purchasing liaison, as well as a legal adviser from the attorney general's office.

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


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