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As others watch, Pitt ends contract with IMG College and heads to courtroom

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Pitt, that longtime West Virginia rival, is in a fight with its former college sports marketing partner.

The University of Pittsburgh ended its license agreement with IMG College on June 30. The university then filed a federal lawsuit on July 15 against IMG College, contending the company didn’t make payment on $3.6 million in final obligations.

The dispute is of interest not only because of Pitt’s proximity but also because of IMG College’s influence on college sports.

Both West Virginia University and Marshall University partner with IMG College. They’re among the many, many Division 1 college sports programs to do so.

That’s especially true after the merger late last year of the top two sports marketing companies in the country, IMG College and Learfield.

The combined company has more than 200 college licensing clients, including 54 of the 65 Power 5 conference members.

West Virginia University and Marshall are aware of the federal lawsuit against IMG College by Pitt, but they’re reserving comment.

“West Virginia University continues to be pleased with its relationship with Learfield-IMG College,” stated Michael Fragale, senior associate athletic director at WVU.

“The partnership has been beneficial to both sides, and we look for it to continue for many years to come. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on another institution’s contract or legal proceedings.”

WVU signed an $80 million, 12-year contract for multimedia rights with IMG College in 2013. West Virginia Radio, parent company of West Virginia MetroNews, filed and later settled a lawsuit over the bidding process.

Marshall, two years ago, signed an agreement to extend its multimedia rights partnership with IMG through 2026. The partnership first started in 1998.

“We share values with IMG College and know that, together, we have a bright future together in athletics,” Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick stated when announcing the extension.

The University of Pittsburgh claims in its federal lawsuit that IMG intentionally withheld $3.6 million “in retaliation for Pitt’s decision not to extend the term of the License Agreement.”

Pitt had a seven year deal with IMG for marketing, promotional and commercial rights. When the contract was up this year, Pitt switched to rival JMI Sports.

JMI Sports is significantly smaller, with marketing clients Clemson, Kentucky and Georgia, along with Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and the Ivy League.

As Pitt exited the agreement with IMG, the university demanded payment for funds that it still claimed to be owed.

The lawsuit claims IMG agreed to pay Pitt royalties for broadcast and publication rights, as well as compensation for game tickets and parking passes provided to IMG, on June 1 of every year the agreement was in effect.

An “exceptional performance” clause should take into account Pitt’s football appearance in the 2018 ACC championship game, the university contends.

IMG College did not respond right away to a MetroNews request for comment.

A spokeswoman for the company issued an earlier statement to the Post-Gazette newspaper in Pittsburgh:

“IMG College has very much valued its relationship with the University of Pittsburgh and hopes that this matter can be resolved amicably. IMG College is confident that it has complied with all of its contractual obligations.”

Athletic Department officials at Pitt declined to comment to MetroNews about the university’s dispute with IMG College or the broader implications.

These were the questions posed:

When Pitt decided not to renew its license agreement with IMG College, what were some of the factors? Is there enough competition in the multimedia rights and corporate sponsorship area to adequately serve top-tier college sports programs?

Is the Pitt situation broadly of interest to top college sports programs from the vantage of the number of marketing companies that are available for this kind of work and whether those companies live up to their contractual obligations?

In other words, do you get the sense that others are keeping a close eye on what happens with Pitt’s situation?

E.J. Borghetti, executive associate athletic director for media relations, responded.

“Thank you for your outreach. At this juncture, we will respectfully decline to participate in your reporting. Should that stance change at a future juncture, I’ll certainly reach back out to comment.”

Pitt vs IMG (Text)

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