The Wisconsin Badgers’ Oct. 31 football game against Rutgers at Camp Randall Stadium will be sponsored by Koch Industries, the energy company run by billionaire political players David and Charles Koch. The game sponsorship is part of UW’s multi-year contract with a collegiate sports marketing company worth more than $111 million in guaranteed payments alone.Basically, Learfield pays UW Athletics to get the right to make money by selling sponsorships and other ways for a company to get its name out there in front of a captive audience of 80,000 (well, given the rain and crappy opponent, it’ll probably be more like 65,000, but you get the idea). And as the Center for Media and Democracy pointed out last month, Koch is more than willing to step up and try to use college sports to look like nice guys, since the Koch name isn’t exactly one that’s thought of very favorably in much of the thinking parts of the country these days.
A 2012 UW Board of Regents contract, obtained by the Capital Times through an open records request, gives Badger Sports Properties, a subsidiary of Learfield Communications, Inc., the right to sell game sponsorships and advertisements to be displayed at UW-Madison athletic venues through 2026.
Koch Industries is in is the midst of a 10-year image makeover, including airing pro-Koch ads during The Big Bang Theory and The Daily Show, to hilarious mocking by Jon Stewart. CMD recently reported on a major Koch hiring spree to beef-up its internal communications team, hiring senior PR pros with experience at firms known for shilling for cancer-causing tobacco, such as Edelman and Burson-Marsteller. One of these new hires is Steve Lombardo, the head of Koch Marketing and Communications, who previously worked to assist the cigarette company Philip Morris with its image problem (its image was so bad it rebranded itself globally as "Altria").
"College sports are a great fit for us and we're excited to lend our support to these schools," Lombardo said of the Koch football deal.
Using sports to pump up the Koch name is a nice alternative to other methods of invading colleges and universities, although PR Watch noted that the Kochs are willing to use the power of their purse strings to do that as well.
The Kochs have come under scrutiny for providing funding to university programs with strings attached, raising serious questions about academic freedom. At Florida State, for example, the Kochs demanded control over the economic program's curriculum and the hiring of professors in exchange for providing funding. At the University of Kansas, the Kochs earmarked funding to a university professor as part of a fight against the state's renewable energy standards.And this is certainly true in Wisconsin as well. Sure, the Kochs haven’t started paying off academic departments and installing right-wing hacks for UW professors (yet), but they sure put a lot of time and effort behind supporting a Governor who proposed a $300 million cut in his latest budget (on top of a major cut in 2011). Koch front groups also backed numerous GOP legislators who dishonestly demonized the UW for carrying reserve funds in 2013, and used that as an excuse to cut state aid in both the 2013-15 budget, as well as a $250 million cut for 2015-17.
In addition, Walker and the GOP Legislature have approved measures to demolish the tenure system at UW campuses, and have diminished the university’s independence from the Legislature, which have hurt the university’s ability to compete for top talent. Just today, there is a story out where UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank is telling colleagues that UW President Ray Cross is backtracking on a promise to allow the flagship school to develop its own tenure program, and is instead putting in a top-down proposal that comes from the Walker-stacked Board of Regents. Chancellor Blank says this could lead to a revolt from faculty, and even more departures from Madison.
Blank was responding to a memo from Cross last week that said regents “will not be in a position to approve campus-specific” policies until they adopt system-wide policies. And then campus rules will be considered within the “controlling limits of system-wide policies.”With clear evidence that the Koch-owned GOP Legislature and Governor are undercutting the UW System’s ability to compete in the market for higher education and research with their regressive actions, allowing Koch to sponsor Badger football seems to run into conflict with the contract UW Athletics has with Learfield Industries. Take a look at this passage from last week's Wisconsin State Journal article on Koch’s game sponsorship.
Being told to set aside a UW-Madison tenure policy proposal after months of work, discussion and debate “will be widely interpreted as the faculty process being undercut by the BOR,” Blank wrote hours before discussion of Cross’ memo drew swift opposition from faculty at a meeting of the system-wide tenure task force.
“Those voices that have argued for more extreme policies (and have argued that the BOR is less-than-trustworthy on these issues) will be strongly reinforced, and those of us who have been trying to shepherd this in a responsible way toward resolution are likely to lose effectiveness,” Blank cautioned of superseding campus level policy-making.
UW’s contract with Badger Sports Properties prohibits the company from entering into “any agreement to provide services to a person or organization that has interests that are adverse to the university.”Can someone tell me how Koch’s puppetmastering of a state legislature that seems determined to smear and injure the UW System (and especially those Madison liberals) isn’t an “interest adverse to the university?” C’mon man!
The agreement also provides for eliminating a “damaging sponsor” upon action that the university and Badger Sports interpret as “unethical, immoral or illegal.”
In the meantime, I’ll be interested to see what crowd reaction there is when we hear a PA announcement of “your Badger game sponsor, Koch Industries!” with some Koch PR flack standing next to Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. The in-game ads that Koch runs during UW football already get a handful of boos, mostly coming from the student section (in the adult sections, a lot of people are probably like me, gritting their teeth but not willing to say anything in fear of getting into an argument with some Bagger fan of Bucky’s). But what we’ll see tomorrow is a whole ‘nother level, and I’ll be interested in seeing if this is a catalyst for some Halloween actions from faculty or interested students who have taken on collateral damage from the Kochs’ regressive agenda in Wisconsin.
It’s time for Barry and Becky to let Learfield Communications know that Koch Industries is not going to profit off of the same university that their politicians hurt with their actions at the Capitol. If you need a few hundred thousand in donations to Bucky Atheltics, I’m sure me and many others who love this university will be glad to step up to get the dirty Koch name off of Camp Randall’s scoreboards. Just give the word.