Commentary: ESPN, MAC contract a secret?

Richie Mulhall is the sports editor of The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]

Richie Mulhall

Back in August, the MAC and ESPN reached a 13-year rights extension deal through the 2026-27 season, the longest in the conference’s 68-year history. As the Columbus Dispatch reported, the new television and digital media contract is worth more than $100 million, with each university receiving 670-grand a year for 13 years.

According to the MAC’s press release, the new provisions provide ESPN exclusive television and digital distribution rights for all MAC sporting events, coverage of every football game, select men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sporting events, but what are the more specific details of that contract not explicitly stated in numerous press releases on the web? What do the universities have to do?  

Believe it or not, it’s a secret.   

That’s right, the terms of a 13-year contract worth millions of dollars involving public universities is a secret and inaccessible to the public upon request.

The MAC’s chief operating officer, Bob Gennarelli, told Kent State professor Karl Idsvoog he cannot provide a copy of the contract because it is “proprietary” and said all universities have signed “confidentiality agreements.”

However, confidentiality agreements do not trump Ohio public records law. Under Ohio law, ORC 149.43, all contracts with public agencies are public records and must be provided upon request. It’s not legally permissible to circumvent the public records law by adding a confidentiality clause, Idsvoog said.  

Taking this law into consideration, what are the details of this multi-million dollar contract? What does the university have to do under the terms of the 13-year deal between ESPN and the MAC? Is the new ESPN deal a good deal or a bad one for member universities?

This new contract raises a lot of valid questions the public has the right to know, and the only way to answer these questions is to review the details of the contract.

I sent out public records requests to all the MAC universities in Ohio — Kent State, the University of Akron, Bowling Green University, Ohio University, Miami University and the University of Toledo — requesting the following information:

1.  Every current agreement between the University of Toledo and ESPN and/or its agent, including the new contract.

2. Every current agreement between the University of Toledo and the Mid-American Conference involving ESPN, again including the new contract.

The responses I received — and lack thereof — were astounding.

First, Kent State General Counsel is still in the process of collecting information I requested over a week ago. Below is a copy of the public records request I submitted to Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen on Sept. 10. I still have yet to receive a response from my own university:

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Bowling Green General Counsel processed my request, and University Paralegal Shannon Rehberg emailed me back this response:

We have made inquiries for any responsive records related to this and were advised that no records exist as specified in your request. BGSU does not have its own agreement with (1) ESPN or ESPN’s agent and (2) a contract with the MAC involving ESPN. 

Akron General Counsel also said it does not have a copy of the contract. Here is what the university sent me:

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Ohio University’s Athletic Director Jim Schaus personally answered my request with a short, one sentence email that read:

We do not have a copy of this agreement or any written correspondence, which provides any details on this subject. Jim

Miami University’s Robin Parker of General Counsel simply told me via email that the university “does not have any records responsive to my request.”

Lastly, I am still awaiting a response from the University of Toledo.

Is anyone else sensing a pattern here? There is a complete lack of transparency somewhere interwoven in the details of this contract, and that is what The Kent Stater is trying to find out right now.

How is it possible for all these public universities that allegedly signed a confidentiality agreement do not possess a paper or electronic copy of a contract that involves their participation for the next 13 years? How can these universities agree to a confidentiality agreement without having a copy of the contract?

The facts just don’t seem to add up, and there are still so many unanswered questions that must be asked. As a Kent State student and journalist, I feel as though it my duty and responsibility to uncover the hidden truths behind this contract and hold these universities and their leaders accountable for the contents of the contract.

I am still awaiting responses from Kent State University and will meet with Kent State Athletic Director, Joel Nielsen, on Sept. 24.

In the meantime, I intend to call Scott Campbell, Akron’s associate General Counsel and records compliance officer; Robin Park, Miami’s General Counsel representative; Ohio University’s Office of Legal Affairs; and Toledo General Counsel over the next few days to further clarify the information I received and confirm that these universities in fact do not have a copy of any contracts between their respective school and the MAC and ESPN.

Hopefully when I meet with Nielsen this week, he will be able to answer some of these baffling questions journalists all around the country completely skipped over when doing basic reporting and fact checking.