IMG College

The first UT football game this fall will not only feature a new starting quarterback but will also introduce a new six-figure sponsor to the UT community.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, whose CEO, Gary Kelly, is a UT alumnus, announced July 23 that it will sponsor all 20 official UT sports teams as well as the Texas Exes alumni association for the next five years. The sponsorship will be managed through multimedia marketing company IMG College, which coordinates all sponsorships for UT athletics.

Christine Plonsky, women’s athletics director, said the sponsorship involves a substantial six-figure per-year deal that will give Southwest a great deal of advertising opportunities. Plonsky did not reveal how much Southwest paid in the deal.

“The sponsorship involves cash and some services such as airline vouchers for travel and things like that,” Plonsky said. “The elements within the agreement will give exposure to Southwest through signage, video boards and other things.”

In the athletics department, Plonsky said the money from the sponsorship will support overall operations associated with each sports team.

“The dollars they pay IMG, which then go to the University, inevitably all go to support our operations here, which support our student athlete teams,” Plonsky said.

Tim Taliaferro, a spokesman for Texas Exes, said the sponsorship is smaller for the alumni association than it is for UT athletics, but still important for those who want to stay in touch with what goes on at the University.

“Texas Exes exists to champion the University and to keep people connected,” Taliaferro said.

Scott Willingham, vice president and general manager of Longhorn IMG Sports Marketing, the IMG division in charge of UT athletics marketing, said the sponsorship will be divided between the athletics department and Texas Exes according to the value of each group.

As the official airline sponsor, Southwest takes its place at the top level of sponsorship over any other airline that wishes to sponsor the University, Willingham said. He said other airlines wishing to advertise at UT can buy media time on radio or television.

“No other airline can be official,” he said.

An official sponsorship allows a corporation to use trademarks associated with the University, Willingham said.

“Official sponsors have certain assets,” Willingham said.

“Mainly they have the rights to use marks and logos. They also have the right to say that they’re official.”

Brad Hawkins, Southwest Airlines spokesman, said the decision to partner with the University was business-oriented, as well as positive for employees of the airline.

“There are lots of longhorns at Southwest for whom this was a very special deal,” Hawkins said. “But it was very much a business decision about aligning two brands that have a lot of value.”

The heretofore-unnamed Longhorn sports network announced last week was not a surprise. Journalists and other commentators knew it was coming since the conference realignment shuffle that occurred over the summer.

However, the deal with ESPN is a number of things, not the least of which is lucrative. It is unprecedented, as no single school has ever packaged such a large amount of multi-sport content with a provider like ESPN. With the recent news that Time Warner might buy an ownership stake in the channel, it could reach as many as 2 million basic cable subscribers across the state.

It’s also a warning to the other Big 12 schools: Texas does not need you as much as you need Texas. With the means to secure this type of money, the UT Athletics Department might try negotiating its own package for all football games, independent of the conference, when the league’s agreements with ABC and the Fox Sports Network expire. The ESPN deal signals that the Texas brand is strong enough to do just that.

But it is not, as Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg said, all about the money.

The University stands to make up to $247.5 million over the 20-year contract, or just more than $12.37 million annually (with the rest going to IMG College, which owns the school’s multimedia rights) on top of its already substantial licensing agreements. That’s a serious amount of cash.

I believe the real reason is even simpler. Welcome to the larger-than-life embodiment of the saying “Everything is bigger in Texas.”

The ESPN deal lends a tremendous amount of status to even the smallest NCAA sports on campus. The appearance of rowing regattas and collegiate tennis matches on basic cable in Texas — with an August 2011 debut promised — represents a huge jump in exposure for UT’s non-revenue generating teams. No other school can boast such extensive coverage.

And for the bigger sports like football, which already has almost all of its games on television, a channel dedicated to around-the-clock programming adds icing to an already sweet cake.

And then there’s ESPN, the glitz-and-glamour 24/7 sports network that brought us such spectacles as LeBron’s “Decision” and the Tebow Saga. There is no doubt that it is the premier sports news and entertainment channel in America, both because of its coverage and production values. Put that sort of brand behind the moneymaking machine that is Texas Athletics and you have a media partnership forged in tycoon heaven.

ESPN is even rumored to be considering a permanent studio at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The company currently has 15 offices nationwide and this would be the first attached to a college. Think about that: a constant presence for the network on campus, generating Longhorn-centric content for television and the web. No other school’s multimedia footprint would even come close.

The venture may not even be profitable for ESPN in the first couple of years, but if this network gains momentum the potential advertising profits for the cable magnate and IMG are enormous. The existence of a UT-only channel reinforces the popularity of the already iconic Longhorn emblem, and the growth of said network will only fuel that attractiveness in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

All of this showboating breeds contempt, of course. Texas A&M is listening more and more to the siren calls of the Southeastern Conference. Oklahoma, with its own national following, could strive to establish a network now that the precedent is set. Universities like Notre Dame and Michigan may seek to renegotiate their own television deals for more content. All the while the smaller schools, especially in the Big 12, see a proportionately smaller return on their multimedia and television rights.

The money is important, perhaps even critical. But the most important thing about the Athletic Department to take away from this gross capitalization of brand recognition is this: They’re Texas, and they do what they want.

The rest of us are just observers or soon-to-be subscribers.