Radio group pushed for NDSU media restrictions that led to Bresciani probe, emails show
FARGO—The annual Green and Gold Game offers a chance for the Bison football team to give young players field time and dedicated fans a sneak preview of the upcoming season.
Last April, the traditional spring game also provided an early test of something new: restricted access for media outlets not holding broadcast contracts for Bison games.
The mood was buoyant and gave no hint of the controversy that would erupt over the media policy four months later, triggering a university system investigation into how North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani responded to the backlash.
More than 2,800 pieces of NDSU written correspondence reviewed by The Forum reveal the media guidelines were created as Radio FM Media was pressuring the university to clamp down on other media outlets looking to tie themselves to the Bison brand. In March, Radio FM Media won a three-year deal to broadcast NDSU games and related Bison content.
Email exchanges show Radio FM was vigilant in protecting what it saw as the radio cluster's contract rights, sometimes prodding NDSU athletics officials to keep other outlets from infringing.
For example, Jeremy Jorgenson, director of sales and broadcasting for NDSU athletics, was eager to show he took the new expectations seriously before the spring game. On April 18, days before the game, he wrote to offer assurances to Nancy Odney, chief operating officer of Radio FM Media.
"Hi Nancy," Jorgenson wrote, "Just wanted to update you on this weekend and what we are working on to protect the interests of our radio rights holder. This is definitely on our mind."
He promised NDSU would "protect" the Fargodome "like NCAA/ESPN does in the playoffs," barring certain types of access for broadcasters that don't hold the contract to air games. Jorgenson went on to say that Radio FM Media's contract had language that would protect the network of radio stations "in various ways."
But the new guidelines, made public July 29, never got past the line of scrimmage: Bresciani had them rescinded within days, before they could be implemented in a regular-season game.
After emails and text messages showed Bresciani had privately supported the guidelines before scrapping them, the State Board of Higher Education asked for an investigation of the president's response to the controversy. The probe, which Bresciani said he welcomed, comes at a time when the board has delayed an extension of the president's contract, partly due to communication concerns. The independent investigator's report of Bresciani's conduct is due Friday.
None of the emails obtained by The Forum in an open records request showed Bresciani being involved in the creation of the new media guidelines, which he has maintained caught him by surprise. The Forum's open records request sought correspondence between a handful of top NDSU athletics officials, Bresciani, and executives at the winning bidders for NDSU's radio and TV football rights.
The rights-holder for airing NDSU football on TV, the out-of-state corporate parent of local NBC affiliate KVLY, didn't push for any restrictions on media access in the emails obtained by The Forum.
The now-shelved rules would have prohibited live streaming of press conferences, radio shows from the Fargodome or its grounds on game days, extensive live-blogging of Bison games and interviews with coaches and players that aren't approved in advance.
Emails show push
Representatives of NDSU and Radio FM Media declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokeswoman for NDSU said the university would not make any comments while the investigation into Bresciani's actions is pending.
Radio FM Media provided a statement defending the exclusivity terms it sought, which an executive called standard in broadcasting collegiate sports.
"It's commonplace for rights holders to want protection where there is tangible evidence that the market is getting blurred," Odney said in a statement released to The Forum. "The previous contracts called for exclusives as did the proposals submitted by our competitors. It was part of the bidding process which is typical throughout the country in college sports."
Emails between Jorgenson, Odney and Radio FM owner Jim Ingstad showed an active and cordial correspondence, including exchanges while NDSU was evaluating the Bison broadcast bid proposals, which were submitted by Feb. 16. Bid winners were announced on March 29.
On March 28, the day before the results were announced, Jorgenson wrote the winners to congratulate them and to plan the wording of the news release.
Jorgenson forwarded his message to Odney to Ingstad. "Jim we are so excited ... Go Bison!" Jorgenson wrote. Below, in the forwarded message to Odney, Jorgenson wrote, "Nancy .. Can't wait to work together again!!! ... I am really excited."
Once the bids were awarded, attention turned to getting ready for the upcoming football season and working out details in the contracts between NDSU and its broadcasting partners.
In emails, Radio FM argued that other media outlets were overstepping their bounds.
On April 1, Odney forwarded to Jorgenson promotions from rival stations 740 AM The Fan and KFGO 790 AM seeking sponsors for "live from NDSU" football broadcasts. Odney let Jorgenson know she considered this in violation of the agreement giving her stations exclusive rights, and said she thought NDSU was "clamping down."
Flexing its rights in a different way, Ingstad wrote Jorgenson on April 14 that he would "like to be compensated for a substantial amount of my costs" if a Lisbon, N.D., radio station was allowed to join the Bison Radio Network. The station wasn't admitted because it encroached Radio FM Media's territory.
Though the now-rescinded prohibitions extended further, Radio FM's contract, dated April 19, gives it exclusive rights to on-site ancillary radio programming at home games—programs outside the official game broadcast, pre- and post-game shows and official coaches' shows. It also bars NDSU from granting Radio FM competitors regular interviews with coaches, staff or athletes longer than 10 minutes. KVLY's contract for airing Bison football includes no similar exclusivity provisions.
A separate promotional agreement between NDSU and Radio FM Media prohibits signs or "mentions" from other stations inside or outside athletic events or stadiums. KVLY doesn't have a promotional agreement with NDSU, the university says, though its contract calls for one.
Facing a wave of protests from fans and other media outlets, the new access rules were rescinded by Bresciani on Aug. 2, four days after they were first announced.
But Radio FM Media made it clear that it would hold NDSU to honor its exclusivity rights under their agreements.
On Aug. 5, echoing Odney's concerns about rival The Fan encroaching on Radio FM Radio's exclusivity, Ingstad reminded Jorgenson of a provision in their agreement barring other radio stations from displaying signs or mentions inside or outside NDSU events or facilities.
"I want to call your attention to #5 in our agreement; I think you, Matt (Larsen) and I need to talk if things have changed," Ingstad wrote in his email.
In a separate email, Odney wrote, "We really need to get a handle on this next week."
Revenue on the line
As documents show, broadcasting revenue provides an important source of income for Bison athletics, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars. The deals join NDSU and contract-holding broadcasters as business partners seeking to protect shared financial interests.
Bison athletics' contract with Radio FM Media, which created a station devoted to Bison sports as part of its new contract with NDSU, calls for the university to pay the broadcaster $60,000 annually for an "air charge." In exchange, Radio FM Media is obligated to pay NDSU 30 percent of gross revenues from Bison-related ancillary programming. NDSU gets all advertising revenue from the games, pre- and post-game shows and coaches' shows.
In a statement, Odney said Radio FM Media expects to pay NDSU athletics more than $600,000 over the three years in the contract through its revenue-sharing agreement.
In exchange for its exclusive arrangements, Radio FM Media made investments, including more than $50,000 in new broadcasting equipment, Odney said in her statement.
"We received the release of the media rules at the same time as everyone else and were not involved in the process of creating these rules," she said. "As rights holder we have invested time and money into this process and we want to protect those investments."
WDAY-TV and WDAY 970 AM, which like The Forum are owned by Forum Communications Co., also bid on the rights to both TV and radio broadcasts.
"We find it ironic that Forum Communications, the people making the most noise about the media guidelines, placed last in the bid process for both radio and television and they demanded exclusivity in their bid," Odney wrote in her statement to The Forum.
In its bid proposal, WDAY-TV asked to have exclusive pregame and postgame locker room access.
"We would have loved to be a part of the great NDSU story," said Mari Ossenfort, vice president of broadcasting for Forum Communications. "Unfortunately, we were not granted the media bid. We will continue to cover NDSU athletics despite the fact that we were not chosen."