John Clay: UK's new deal all about possibilities

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 23, 2014 

Hold your horses.

Kentucky's new $210 million multi-rights deal with San Diego-based JMI Sports, which specializes in "delivering stadium financing" among other things, doesn't mean the UK basketball team will soon be breaking ground on a new on-campus arena.

"That's not what this is about," said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.

Monday's financial futures news is really about money and money and more money.

As a point of reference, UK's last multi-media rights contract, signed in 2004, called for $80.5 million over 10 years, averaging out an $8 million per year. The new 15-year multi-media rights deal, including a $29 million signing bonus, averages out to $14 million per year.

Money brings possibilities.

Five years from now, will UK baseball be playing in a new stadium?

"I hope so," Barnhart said Monday.

Three years?

"I don't know, I hope so," the AD said.

There will be the possibility of selling naming rights to athletic facilities, something the traditionalist in Barnhart may question, but the realist knows as prudent for athletic departments searching for new revenue streams.

"The end game for us," Barnhart said, "(is to) keep out programs moving in the direction we've got them going."

After all, these are uncertain times for college athletics.

Out in California, a federal judge is hearing an anti-trust lawsuit about athletes' names, likenesses and images that could result in schools having to provide more than just scholarships to the players.

In Indianapolis, the NCAA is all but under siege thanks to an "amateur athletics" business model that appears more hypocritical by the minute.

"First and foremost, we want what's best for the student-athlete," Barnhart said Monday when asked about the changing landscape. "Others will define what that looks like for us, and we will respond to that accordingly."

Mitch knows his math. In his 12-year stewardship, Barnhart has provided UK's athletics department with a growing financial base, and then some.

There is a reason why most major universities have scrapped the former-coach-as-athletic-director hiring plan in favor of those who know how to balance the books. There's just too much (money) at stake to do otherwise.

And there's a reason why other schools — Arizona with Greg Byrne; Mississippi State with Scott Stricklin; Oregon with Rob Mullens; Boise State with Mark Coyle — have tabbed Barnhart acolytes to run their athletic enterprises.

On the flip side, the landscape has changed for the multi-media partners, as well.

Tom Stultz was the head of Host Communications when it signed that $80 million deal with UK back in 2004. Stultz is now the president of JMI Sports, and a major player behind this $215 million megadeal.

In 2004, local television rights were a large part of such contracts. In 2014, thanks to the SEC Network, selling those local rights are no longer available.

"We have to be creative," Stultz said.

For example, the new contract identifies the possibility of UK athletics owning or leasing a radio station. When asked about that during the press conference, Stultz said that might not mean actually owning the station, but producing the content that would be aired on that station.

And it might also mean devising a financial plan to build an on-campus arena. IMG, which bought out Host, worked on that — in addition to the financing of a new baseball stadium — in the previous multi-media rights deal but could never get the numbers to work. Though Barnhart downplayed the Rupp Arena issue Monday, common sense says a new day with a new partner means the possibility of a new attempt.

"It is important to explore all potential options," said UK president Eli Capilouto in that now famous letter to Lexington Center Corporation chairman Brent Rice.

These days, everything is on the table.

John Clay: 859-231-3226.E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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