An offshoot of the Kentucky Coal Association will be the "signature sponsor" of the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville football game on Saturday.
Friends of Coal has paid $85,000 to sponsor three athletic events this year, Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett said.
"We want to give visual representation of the great many people who support this industry," Bissett said. "One of the things we need to do better as an industry is to get the support of folks outside the coal fields, because we all depend on affordable electricity."
He declined to name the other two events, saying those would be announced later.
With the sponsorship, Friends of Coal will be represented across Commonwealth Stadium, including billboards and video clips on the video scoreboards. In addition, Friends of Coal will present a check to the mining engineering department at UK to help Kentucky students who want to enter that program. The group will receive eight tickets to the game.
"This allows us to communicate directly with everyone in the stands factual information about Kentucky coal," Bissett said.
UK is expecting a sellout crowd, which could bring as many as 70,000 people to Commonwealth Stadium.
The money for the sponsorship comes from direct contributions to Friends of Coal, Bissett said, not from the roughly $160,000 raised through the sale of 43,000 Friends of Coal state license plates. That money is split between coal-related educational programs, such as mining engineering, and items such as stickers, T-shirts and other memorabilia.
Friends of Coal in Kentucky started in 2008, following the Friends of Coal program in West Virginia. Bissett said the Friends of Coal Bowl, the football game between Marshall University and West Virginia University, has been a successful sponsorship that spurred the idea here.
However, coal has turned into a highly controversial issue at UK. The Board of Trustees voted in 2009 to accept $8 million from coal representatives led by industry leader Joe Craft to build a new dorm for basketball players with the requirement that it be named the Wildcat Coal Lodge and feature a shrine to coal in the front lobby. The basketball practice center is named for Craft, who was the lead donor.
In addition to protests from students and professors, that vote resulted in author Wendell Berry pulling his papers from the UK library system.
"I think it is deeply unfortunate that the coal identity continues to be riveted to the University of Kentucky and its major sports events," said former faculty trustee Ernie Yanarella. "There is a good deal of divisiveness within the UK campus about the role coal should play in Kentucky's future and the directing role it should play in university administrative policy."
But Board of Trustees chairman Britt Brockman said it would be "shortsighted and naïve to think that coal is not important to our university. They have the right to advertise as would other industries that are important to our state."
All UK Athletics sponsorships are handled by IMG sports marketing, which controls multimedia rights. The cost to sponsor conference football games is roughly $25,000, said Kim Shelton of IMG.
"Our role in the process is to sell sponsorships to folks who are trying to reach the state of Kentucky and we believe we have a great vehicle to do that," Shelton said. "With the game sponsorship, I believe the sponsor has the ability to reach the fans at an event they're passionate about."