College gridiron fans are familiar with the on-field twists and turns of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln football program, but only those who follow the sports marketing side of things would know that UNL’s athletic department also has been on a journey down a winding road recently regarding its multimedia rights representation.
In March 2021, the university opted to take sales and management of the Cornhuskers’ marketing and media rights in house, ending a 15-year relationship with Learfield as the school’s MMR representative, with Learfield paying a $12 million guarantee each year of the last six years of the contract. At the time, the move was touted by some in the industry as a key domino falling that could lead to more major college programs reclaiming their rights from third-party sellers.
That has not been the case. Until recently, there were only four Power Five schools that sold their own sponsorships, radio broadcasts, stadium signage, digital media and other marketing alliances. That number shrunk to three last Friday when the University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a 15-year, $301 million MMR deal with Playfly Sports, with more than $273 million guaranteed.
(The Playfly contract came about after UNL and JMI Sports unveiled an agreement on March 7 of this year regarding a 12-year MMR deal worth $215 million, with $200 million guaranteed, before announcing March 31 that negotiations had ended after the two sides were unable to agree on final terms.)
Nebraska’s decision to end its one-year experiment leaves only Arizona State—which was the first Power Five school to go in-house with MMR in 2016—Stanford and Clemson as major programs that don’t outsource their MMR rights. The latter two schools continue to work with Learfield and JMI respectively when those firms have a national partner that wants to include the school in a multi-market partnership.
When Nebraska and Clemson chose to go their own way in 2021, schools and rights holders were still reeling from Covid’s devastating financial impact. Where guarantees were once standard in the purchase of athletic department rights, buyers, including market-leader Learfield, attempted to shift to terms that included more revenue sharing and other mechanisms that would avoid large out-of-pocket commitments.
While that led some schools to question the value of giving up control of their rights, both JMI’s and Playfly’s offers to Nebraska send a strong signal that guarantees are back.
As UNL athletic director Trev Alberts told the Lincoln Journal Star in March, “the decision to keep our multi-media rights in-house allowed for the opportunity to thoughtfully evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of an internal program while multimedia rights companies reset themselves for a post-pandemic marketplace. After thoughtful consideration and feedback, we believe the best model is for Husker Athletics to return its MMR rights to an industry expert.”
As long as third parties continue to profit from buying and reselling multi-media rights, Power Five athletic departments will wonder if they are leaving money on the table by not going it alone. But with only three programs currently taking that step and multiple vendors apparently willing to stake guaranteed payments, don’t expect a rush to the in-house route any time soon.