By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — (Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on West Virginia University’s athletic broadcast situation, which has come under some fire recently for not maximizing profits.)
As Mike Garrison looks back on it now, there are so many things that he had hoped to accomplish as president of West Virginia University, things that evaporated along with all the steam that came out of the Heather Bresch eMBA affair that wound up costing him his job less than a year into his term.
One thing he had planned to approach was the way the athletic department, under the leadership of athletic director Ed Pastilong and his deputy, Mike Parsons, handled the broadcasting rights.
Garrison wanted to investigate whether running their own network, as they do with the Mountaineer Sports Network, was as profitable or efficient as it would be if they bid out the rights.
Garrison was asked about it in a recent deposition taken in connection with WVU’s lawsuit aimed at forcing former football coach Rich Rodriguez to pay the $4 million in liquidated damages his contract called for.
“We had a lot of discussion about that in our office and with some folks in the athletic department. I’ve talked about that with Mr. Rodriguez before. We had an interest, and continue to have an interest, in exploring those possibilities,” Garrison said.
Garrison also revealed that Rodriguez’s representatives Mike Brown, his agent, and Mike Wilcox, his financial advisor, actually may have given a proposal to bid out the rights for the broadcasts to Garrison’s chief of staff, Craig Walker.
“I certainly indicated it was something we were interested in exploring and needed to get more information about,” Garrison said. “In fact, did Mike Brown give Craig Walker a request for a proposal form? I think that’s used by Clemson University for the same thing.”
Garrison wasn’t alone in believing the university is leaving significant cash on the table by running its own network, known as the Mountaineer Sports Network (MSN).
Other influential people — including one of the most important alumni, Ken Kendrick, a generous booster who lists managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks as one of his many business and charitable positions, has included changing the broadcast philosophy in his harsh criticism of the university’s athletic department.
Kendrick believes they are leaving a sizable amount of cash unharvested by not bidding out the rights .
Others, including Steve Farmer, a Charleston lawyer and outgoing member of the WVU Board of Governors, have indicated they are in favor of bidding out the rights.
“It has a been a fist fight for a year,” he said of the behind-the-scenes battles.
Farmer also admitted in his deposition for the Rodriguez suit that he believed Parsons, who is in charge of the network, should be fired.
“I have counseled the athletic director (Ed Pastilong) that I think Mike Parsons should be fired,” said the lawyer via the deposition. “I’ve counseled the (university) president that I think Mike Parsons should be fired. ... I don’t think he’s good for the athletic department.”
Farmer’s thoughts on this were not just based on the radio network, but on Parsons’ entire performance, saying he created a “culture of no.”
“I mean if there’s a question, the answer from Mike Parsons is no,” Farmer said. “It’s not, well, what do we need to do to figure that out or is that a good idea, or a bad idea, (it) is no ... I think we could have somebody in that position in the athletic department that would be better for the athletic department.”
That includes questions concerning bidding out the radio network.
Research seems to confirm selling the rights to one of the many multi-media companies such as Host, ISP and IMG that create networks and sell ads and handle promotions for schools would be able to increase revenue over the $2.5 million gross from local and statewide broadcasts that Parsons estimates the school takes in through MSN.
MSN produces radio broadcasts in football and men’s and women’s basketball, along with coaches shows and such television shows as “Mountaineer Madness” in football and “Mountaineer Jammin’” in basketball.
That revenue does not include television money earned through the school’s contract with the Big East Conference or bowl TV money. The school earned $880,495 from the Big East in football television revenue in 2007, not counting the Fiesta Bowl television broadcast.
An insider with one of the companies who would be involved in the bidding should WVU put its rights up for bid said the Mountaineers “could do better than that” when told they estimate bringing in $2.5 million this year.
The spokesperson requested the company and she be kept anonymous because she did not want it to appear that they were trying to influence WVU in any way or trying to gain a competitive edge in any bidding.
“If they went out today, there would be a lot of interest in companies like ours. It’s becoming a trend that’s becoming more and more commonplace across the college landscape,” she said. “It’s a buyer’s market.”
The biggest advantage to selling the rights, according to the spokesperson, is getting a guaranteed check and doing away with any risk that would come with down years.
“If I had to boil it down to one word it would be risk,” she said.
Parsons says he’s heard all the arguments and understands where the other side is coming from but that West Virginia presents a unique situation and he believes the approach now being taken is the proper one.
“People will be surprised when I say this, but not every decision we make is about the money. It really isn’t,” he said. “Obviously, the revenue part is important because we do things in a self-supporting mode and expenses do grow, but not every decision we make is not because of that.”
He says part of that comes from Pastilong’s belief that it must be remembered this is still a college.
“This is something Eddie has really focused on, maintaining a collegiate atmosphere and not overly commercializing things,” Parsons said. “Obviously, commercialization exists, I won’t deny that, but we try to maintain an even keel on that so we have a collegiate atmosphere.”
Dale Miller is general manager of the West Virginia Radio Corp., whose WAJR is the flagship station for the Mountaineers. The company has nine affiliates carrying WVU games, and some charge they are too involved in the running and promotion of WVU athletics.
Miller cautions those who look only at the bottom line and want to turn the rights over to the highest bidder.
“I would caution everyone who looks to jump for the bucks on one little issue,” Miller said. “I have done radio in this state now for over 30 years. We know this economy. We know this state. It’s tough. Something that might be missed in this deal is that in our relationship with WVU we try to aid them as much as we can.
“It’s not just the Division I football and basketball. It’s the Big East baseball tournament, which costs us a lot of money. You can’t sell that. We think it’s important we go down and follow the Mountaineers. If they had gone on and played in the NCAA Tournament, we’d have gone down and followed that there. If they went to the World Series, we’d have been there.
“Anything we could clear that made sense, we’d do. Three or four years ago, at my insistence, we started doing women’s basketball. When Mike Carey came in, we were willing as major affiliates to carry it.”
MSN makes its money off its radio broadcasts by selling in-game or in-show advertising.
“We’re lean and mean,” said Parsons.
They have, for the most part, a three-person sales staff, headed by the school’s assistant athletic director/marketing Brad Howe, who does the bulk of the sales, and Matt Wells, director of sports marketing. Parsons says he’s not as involved as he once was in the sales process but remains in on the major sponsors.
“We’re not your typical sales people. It’s not a regular radio or TV sales person making the call. You’re dealing with the university. We’ve got most of the major categories involved, most of the major companies in West Virginia involved with us,” Parsons said.
“It’s not like there’s a big sales staff. Is there room to improve? Yeah, you always want to generate more revenue, but our model has worked. There are some limitations. Just like in recruiting, you’re bound by the environment you live in, but I think we’ve been very successful.”
The industry spokesperson believes that’s not necessarily true.
“What we would bring would be the ability to find and locate national sponsors,” the person said. “It’s the national companies that buy regionally or nationally. We have a lot of sponsors that buy across the board on all the schools we represent.
“As good as West Virginia has been, if whoever is selling it now goes to New York City he won’t be able to go in and get an appointment with an agency. But if he goes in representing 50-plus schools, he’ll get an appointment.”
The spokesperson also noted that West Virginia would pass the expenses that go with selling those accounts and the man-hours used over to the new rights holder.
“The way we deploy our sales staff in general, you’d expect a little more (revenue) because if they have three people doing it, we put four or five there so just by shear manpower they should generate more dollars,” the spokesperson said.
Parsons, however, notes that West Virginia differs from selling such schools as Georgia or Pittsburgh or USC or even Nebraska, where they get 80,000 out for their spring football game.
He also said that having studied the way those companies work, they don’t really sell a lot of national advertising.
West Virginia’s 2007 football media guide listed the following as sponsors of MSN Radio: United Bank, Cellular One, Kroger, Coca-Cola, West Virginia Lottery, State Farm Insurance, Papa John’s Pizza, Mead Westvaco, Suddenlink, Chesapeake Energy, West Virginia Coal Association, StubHub, BrickStreet Insurance, West Virginia Small Business Plan and Verizon SuperPages.
That list does change from year to year.
There are four “protected” sponsors, meaning affiliates can’t sell ads to their competitors. They are Coca-Cola, State Farm Insurance, Anheuser-Busch and AT&T;, according to Parsons. These, too, can change from year to year.
Monday: WVU’s athletic department has resisted selling the rights to broadcast its athletic events.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.