HARTFORD, Conn. — The University of Connecticut is opposing legislation that could force public disclosure of contracts to do marketing for its athletic teams, arguing it would turn away potential advertisers and hurt the university financially.
Since 1998, the marketing of the college’s athletic programs has been handled by a private firm, IMG College, which pays UConn an average of $8 million annually for the right to negotiate marketing contracts for the university. Under that arrangement, the university says, the contracts are not subject to Freedom of Information laws because the public institution is not a party to the agreements.
The legislation proposed by state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, would require that any contract involving a marketing sponsor and a public college or university be subject to transparency laws.
UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel and Neal Eskin, Connecticut’s senior associate athletic director in charge of external relations, argued that the bill could jeopardize money that is critical to UConn’s success.
“If IMG College knows that every corporate sponsorship contract of which it is a party [on behalf of the University] is subject to public disclosure, it may determine that doing future business with UConn is not in its best interests, thus placing a severe financial burden on the university,’ they said in written testimony.
At a hearing Tuesday before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, an IMG College executive said the contract to market UConn’s athletic teams would lose about half its value if agreements with sponsors were subject to public disclosure. Rex Hough, the company’s vice president of the eastern region, was testifying at a hearing on a complaint brought by The Associated Press, which is seeking details of a major marketing deal that made Webster Bank a university sponsor.
“When our contract’s up with the university and it goes back to bid, that $8 million probably gets reduced in half because of the business that’s potentially lost by disclosing every contract. If every contract is disclosed, they don’t have an $8 million contract,” Hough said.
The university gets the $8 million regardless of whether IMG takes in more or less in UConn advertising contracts. Hough said IMG College, which is in the fifth year of a 10-year agreement with UConn, has yet to turn a profit on the deal.
IMG, which has similar agreements with more than 70 other schools, pays UConn in exchange for licensing, media rights and control of the content on school athletic websites. The university handled sponsorship agreements on its own before hiring IMG through a competitive bid process, and school officials say the arrangement has provided a steady and predictable flow of marketing revenue.
State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat who chairs the Education Committee, said UConn athletics have enough popularity that it’s unlikely disclosure would make potential sponsors significantly less interested. He said similar legislation to compel disclosure has been proposed in the past, and there is likely some middle ground to be reached.
“Obviously, the state has an interest in getting the strongest possible support for its programs through these marketing arrangements that it can, so there’s a balance to be struck. It’s possible there could be greater transparency while protecting the key pieces of information that key partners feel would compromise their overall marketing strategy,” he said.
Last July, the university announced it had become a partner with Webster in a deal that “encompasses all aspects of the university.” Among other things, it calls for the bank and the school names to appear together in media campaigns and on signs at sports venues.
The school rejected the AP’s Freedom of Information request for the Webster Bank contract, saying it does not have a copy of the agreement with Webster and was not a party to it. In the Freedom of Information complaint, the AP argued that the contract should be subject to disclosure because IMG entered into the contract with Webster on behalf of UConn, a public institution.
The commission ordered new legal briefs in the case to be filed by April 19.