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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Texas universities are relying heavily on private marketing firms to raise tens of millions of dollars from corporate sponsors for their athletic programs.
But in some cases, the sponsorship agreements aren't available to the public — and not even school officials are privy to the details.
The San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1ISjEVy ) reports Learfield Sports is a company based in Plano that handles every aspect of the sponsorship process for nearly 100 schools across the United States — including Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
When the Express-News asked major universities for copies of their sponsorship contracts, school officials at A&M and UTSA replied that Learfield keeps the only copies and won't release them.
"To date, Learfield has refused to provide any such information to the university because Learfield asserts the information is not 'public information' under the Texas Public Information Act," A&M lawyer R. Brooks Moore wrote in a letter Tuesday to the Texas attorney general's office.
"The university disagrees with this conclusion and has demanded that Learfield provide this information to the university no later than May 12, 2015, in accordance with the act and by virtue of the university's contractual right to inspect and copy Learfield's books, records and documents related to its agreement with Learfield," Moore continued.
A&M spokeswoman Terry McDevitt said Wednesday the school has reached an agreement with Learfield and the contracts could be released in a matter of weeks.
But she said the impasse has prompted A&M to seek new bids for the sponsorship work that's being handled by Learfield. The move could mean Learfield will lose one of its biggest clients, the Aggies, in the booming business of college sports.
"They have relented, and they are going to release the documents," said McDevitt, vice chancellor for marketing and communications for the Texas A&M University System. "In the process of all this, we made the decision to rebid the contract."
John Raleigh, Learfield's chief legal officer, declined to answer questions.
"Sorry, I can't really talk about it right now," Raleigh said. "It's something we're looking at, though."
Texas' open records law defines public documents as information that an agency keeps or has a "right of access" to.
Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire, an expert on Texas' open records statute, said the sponsorship agreements clearly would be public records if the universities had handled the contracts themselves.
Outsourcing the process to a private company doesn't mean the documents suddenly become confidential, he said.
"They have someone out there performing the government's job," Aleshire said. "When they privatize a function, the public does not lose a right of access to records that would have been available had the government done it itself."
As more universities turn to well-connected marketing firms to drum up corporate sponsors, Learfield is a well-known name in the world of collegiate sports.
The company's website says the firm launched in 1975 with the radio rights to the University of Missouri. Today, Learfield employs more than 500 people and boasts a portfolio of nearly 100 "collegiate properties" where the company handles corporate sponsorships, radio programs and marketing.
Last month, the Express-News detailed how the University of Texas at Austin partnered with another marketing firm, IMG College, to raise $98 million through 2021 from 19 corporate sponsors that include Nike, MillerCoors and AT&T. UT-Austin's athletic program generates $161 million in annual revenues, the U.S. Department of Education reports, while Texas A&M generates $90 million.
UT had copies of the sponsorship agreements arranged by IMG and released them to the Express-News after the Texas attorney general ruled in December that they are subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
The contracts detail how companies pay millions of dollars for game tickets, advertising and the privilege of placing the Longhorn brand on their products. IMG receives a cut of those profits.
In its contract with A&M, Learfield agreed to pay the university $50 million in guaranteed royalty fees from 2006 to 2015. A&M also receives 45 percent of the revenue raised by Learfield that exceeds a "revenue share hurdle." This year, the hurdle was nearly $6 million.
A&M's agreement with Learfield stipulates that the school has a right to audit Learfield's books. Aleshire said that obtaining copies of each sponsorship agreement would help verify the accuracy of Learfield's payments to A&M and safeguard the university.
"You might want to know what's in it," he said of each sponsorship contract. "And you might want to know whether it's being complied with."
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the San Antonio Express-News