College Sports Megadeal Is The Antitrust Story That No One Cares About

We see you, IMG/Learfield, even if Jeff Sessions don't.
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It was back in September when word first came of plans for Learfield and IMG College to merge and form a behemoth in the collegiate marketing field, and early October when the agreement was officially announced. Now it’s late December, and still anyone’s guess as to when or if the merger will get federal approval to go forward.

IMG.Learfield

One school contacted by Dealbreaker about the impact of the potential merger on the college landscape said that it could not comment after having participated in the government’s review process. That would be a process conducted by the Department of Justice, which has been somewhat busy lately. So the wait could go on for a while.

As giant mergers that form single companies controlling more than three quarters of a market go, this one seems pretty benign, though that does not mean there are not concerns. The worries have as much to do with the present and future state of college athletics as with the merger itself, with the positive feelings stemming from the way the companies currently do business.

The setup currently employed by both Learfield and IMG is to have individual entities at client schools, from Big Green Sports Properties at Dartmouth to Sooner Sports Properties at Oklahoma. In many cases, the marketing and media rights offices are located in athletic department buildings.

The reason to do this is that each school has its own specific interests, but whereas an in-house marketing staff at, say, Rutgers, might be able to get a marketing deal done with New Jersey Chevrolet dealers or the Chase branch in Piscataway, IMG can get the school hooked up with Chevy and Chase proper, as part of a network of nationwide deals. Because the school makes out better than it could on its own, giving a cut to the outside company means still coming out ahead.

Officials at a dozen client schools of both IMG and Learfield expressed unanimous happiness with the way their relationship is going currently, with the prevailing sentiment being that the merger, if it goes through, will have little to no effect on the way they do business in the short term.

It’s in the longer term that the questions start to come up, such as, what happens when it comes time for schools to negotiate new contracts, and instead of Learfield and IMG competing against each other for a school’s business, they are combined as the giant of the industry? There are other firms in the game, including Fox Sports College Properties and Outfront, but nobody would be able to match the market reach of a combined Learfield and IMG.

For recent Fox signees like Auburn and Michigan State, that might not matter so much – those are enormous schools with wide appeal and universal recognition. The trouble comes at smaller schools, for whose business there is less interest, who often can get obliterated from an attention standpoint by larger in-state counterparts, and who would be in a position to get squeezed hard when facing a choice of hooking up with the industry giant or going it alone.

One assistant athletic director suggested that there would be an opening in the field for boutique regional firms to pop up and cater to schools outside the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Bit 12, Pac-12, and SEC), if such a need arises. But that also speaks to the already wide but still growing disparity between college sports’ biggest money-making machines and the rest of Division I. It all flows from football, where bowl season is underway and, like last year, each of the big conferences will get about as much money, each, as the “Group of 5” conferences combined.

For the smaller schools, being able to get in on national deals anchored by these powerhouse programs likely makes it worth staying with a combined Learfield/IMG, even if the terms become less favorable to them as would be expected with a competition-reducing merger, whether quickly or further down the road.

The merger would address the problem of national scope in college sports marketing – since each school is an independent entity, there is no all-encompassing rights plan the way there is for major professional sports, even though the University of Miami generates more interest than the Miami Marlins. If Learfield and IMG can cobble it together themselves, more power to them, but it also is indicative of a greater problem, which is that all of this money is being made, with the potential for even more, and it’s all being run independently through each school, whether with an intermediary like IMG or Learfield, or alone. That there is no comprehensive plan, taking into account and helping the vast majority of its member institutions, is a colossal failure by the organization whose name, saying everything, has not appeared in this column, and ultimately should bear responsibility for the well-being of its programs in a way that is not happening and will not happen, the NCAA.

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