UK signed a 15-year, $210 million multimedia rights agreement with JMI Sports on Monday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
As he cast a vision for the future when he set foot on campus, Mitch Barnhart had more questions than answers for himself and his staff.
Those questions, though, were posed more as challenges than anything else.
"If we had proper resources, what were the expectations for our programs?" Barnhart said. "Could we be better than who we were? Would we be able to grow our programs and give opportunities for our student-athletes to be competitive in the most difficult league in America and nationally? Could we do that?"
The answer, 12 years later, is a resounding yes.
Poised to finish in the top 15 of the national all-sports standings for the first time in department history, UK is competitive across all sports unlike ever before, but Barnhart isn't content. He's intent on taking UK Athletics to the next level.
That, however, can't happen without help.
"As we do that, you've got to have partners, and you have to have people that you want to work with," Barnhart said.
On Monday, Barnhart identified a new partner.
UK awarded its athletics and campus multimedia rights to JMI Sports, signing a 15-year, $210 million agreement
-- one of the most valuable of its kind in college sports history -- that will begin in April 2015. The deal, according to Barnhart, represents an important step toward guaranteeing the financial strength that have allowed UK to give its student-athletes and coaches the resources necessary to go to that next level.
"We're excited about what this means for the University of Kentucky and the stability it provides for our program going forward and just the unbelievable opportunities we think it creates for us as an institution, not just an athletic department," Barnhart said.
The agreement represents a change for UK. The school's current deal -- 10 years, $80.5 million -- with IMG Sports expires next April, so a Request for Proposals was issued this winter to prepare in case a transition would be necessary.
UK's priorities were threefold.
"First and foremost, we want to have a network that our fans can absolutely stay in contact with University of Kentucky athletic teams, the successes that we have, the things that we're doing," Barnhart said.
That will be achieved by continuing to provide a best-in-class radio network. JMI Sports, as part of its proposal, committed to maintaining and developing UK's affiliate lineup, retaining current announcers like Tom Leach, Mike Pratt and Neil Price and even potentially leasing and operating a station of its own in Lexington and/or Louisville.
"We have the opportunity now to reach places through the radio stations that we have in our footprint or in our inventory, whatever you want to call it," Barnhart said. "We have incredible opportunities, I think, to give our fans what they want, and that's to listen to the great talent that we have on the radio, the opportunity to see our teams play when they're not at home."
Next, UK set out to address its facilities, at least in part, through the RFP.
The department has made tremendous strides in recent years -- from the ongoing renovation of Commonwealth Stadium to John Cropp Stadium to the soon-to-be-completed soccer complex -- but Barnhart's facilities checklist remains incomplete, with the baseball stadium, indoor tennis facility and Memorial Coliseum upgrades at the top.
Helping on that front will a $29.4 million signing bonus UK will receive from JMI Sports over the first two years of the media rights agreement.
Finally, UK Athletics sought to strengthen its relationship with the university it represents with its new multimedia rights deal, both in securing its self-sustaining financial status and in adding on-campus multimedia rights to the RFP.
"When you talk about campus rights, we're looking at the non-athletic side, and so looking at opportunities to expand on relationships with existing partners that we may have in the athletic enterprise but new partners," Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Eric Monday said. "It could be everything from digital signage opportunities on the campus and way-finding like another institution is doing. It could be access to students. It could be internships. It could be employment opportunities, guest speakers that we bring to the campus."
Combining those three priorities and an unmatched $210 million offer, JMI Sports was the obvious choice when the RFP process reached its conclusion this spring.
Founded in 2006, the company is a relative newcomer to the industry and UK is its first multimedia rights client. JMI Sports, however, is hardly entering uncharted waters given its experience.
Developer, philanthropist and former San Diego Padres owner John Moores founded the company with Chief Executive Officer Erik Judson. Judson is experienced in athletics himself, having managed major development projects like the Padres' Petco Park and the University of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena. If that wasn't enough, JMI Sports hired former Greenup, Ky., native Tom Stultz as president, who worked closely with UK during his time as IMG College vice president.
"I think our experience is more than enough of a foundation, but I think actually our perspective is what is going to grow the business, and the approach we are going to take is going to have a flagship in Kentucky that we're going to give a tremendous amount of focus to," Judson said. "Our organization takes this very seriously, and I think the financial contribution certainly speaks to that, but Tom and I personally are going to be involved in this property every day."
The agreement with UK represents JMI Sports' first foray into multimedia rights and some may see that as a risk for a brand as well-established as UK. Barnhart, on the other hand, sees it as an opportunity to take another step toward his vision of building the best athletics department in the nation.
"I don't think that we miss a beat," Barnhart said. "As a matter of fact, I think we get better, and I love the focus that they say we're their flagship and we're their folks, and I like that a lot."