College campuses increasingly are striking deals with sports betting companies eager to promote their brands in stadiums, on radio broadcasts and on athletic department websites — places where they can be seen and heard by students. But the terms of those agreements are opaque despite the high-dollar and societal stakes.
Louisiana State University, Michigan State University and the University of Maryland have made their agreements through third-party companies, firms set up to sell sports sponsorships on behalf of the schools. That means the agreements can be shielded from public view; open records laws don’t apply to privately held companies.
That lack of transparency concerns gambling addiction experts and others already troubled by the impact of legalized sports betting on college campuses.
“Anytime that you can’t be transparent about something you’re doing, it probably indicates that there are some issues,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “These colleges should be very concerned about the impact of gambling addiction among especially underage students.”
Maryland Del. Jared Solomon, D-Montgomery County, vice chair of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, said he was unaware of the third-party deals and wanted to hear from university officials about why the sports betting contract for the University of Maryland isn’t available to the public.
“As a policymaker and a taxpayer, I would like to know what agreements our system is entering into that are going to have an impact on our students and are going to have an impact on the bottom line of the university,” Solomon said.
As part of a four-month investigation into sports betting on college campuses, The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland sought contracts from LSU, Michigan State and three other universities known to have sports betting brands as sponsors:
— University of Colorado Boulder
— University of Denver
— University of Maryland
All but the University of Denver are public universities and therefore are subject to open records requests under public information laws.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Nevada, Reno, each had a sponsorship deal with sports betting company William Hill. Those agreements with the company, which was acquired by Caesars Sportsbook in 2021, have ended.
Both Nevada schools continue to have betting partners, however. UNLV is allied with DraftKings in a branding deal that includes an on-campus gaming innovation studio. At the University of Nevada, Reno, a local casino hosts the weekly radio broadcasts of the men’s basketball and football coaches.
Of the five schools with the most extensive ties to sports betting brands, only CU Boulder released its agreement in response to a public records request from the Povich and Howard centers. Most of the others replied that they did not have deals with sports betting companies.
However, in January 2022, Michigan State Athletics announced its deal with Caesars Sportsbook in a press release. A month earlier, Maryland announced a deal with betting platform PointsBet under the headline, “PointsBet Named Official Partner of University of Maryland Athletics.”
The betting companies made their deals not with the schools but with private sports marketing companies aligned with the schools, according to officials at Michigan State and Maryland.
Michigan State, Maryland and LSU are represented by sports marketing company Playfly Sports, the “marketing and multimedia rights holder for some of the most prestigious collegiate teams, high school state associations and sports venues across the country,” according to the company website.
Playfly did not respond to interview requests from the Povich and Howard centers.
Like Learfield, another large sports marketing firm, Playfly represents high-profile college sports programs often selling sponsorship deals to become “official partners.”
Sports marketing companies Playfly and Learfield take the risk, although they can make back their investment and more if they close enough lucrative deals. Athletic departments also benefit because they can count on a set payment from a marketing company each year.
Some privately held sports marketing companies create other private companies organized to only handle the deals with the campuses. For example, PointsBet’s “official partner” deal with Maryland is instead with Maryland Sports Properties, a private company created by Playfly. Maryland Sports Properties negotiates all marketing and media rights for the university’s athletics program.
When the Povich and Howard centers requested the PointsBet agreement from Maryland Sports Properties, General Manager Jack Krabbe replied in an email that Maryland Sports Properties was not required to share it.
LSU and Michigan State also declined requests for their agreements. LSU stated that the university is “not a custodian” of the contract. Michigan State responded to the request with the school’s multimedia rights contract with FOX Sports, an agreement that the Povich and Howard centers hadn’t asked for. Michigan State never provided its sports betting agreement.
Maryland also did not release its contract. A public records officer told the Povich and Howard centers, “Athletics has confirmed that UMD does not have an agreement with PointsBet,” even though the university refers to PointsBet as an “official partner” of Maryland Athletics.
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, a nonprofit that advocates for public access to government and other records, said, “Sports betting is a huge industry, and the public needs to understand how that’s affecting their publicly funded universities. I think it’s very convenient that there are no public records.”
Brian Ullmann, the University of Maryland’s vice president for marketing and communications, said the relationship between Maryland Athletics and PointsBet “is not a contract between the university and sponsor. It’s a contract between Playfly and a sponsor.”
In all, Playfly has signed approximately 63 sponsorship deals for Maryland, according to Ullmann, who added the university has four other sponsorship deals that were signed directly with the university. Those include agreements with Pepsi and Under Armour, he said.
Though a private company, Maryland Sports Properties has a close relationship with the university. Maryland Sports Properties has an office at Xfinity Center, the athletic venue where many Terps sports teams play and where coaches and sports administrators have offices. The familiar red “M” of Maryland Athletics is on the door of the Maryland Sports Properties offices.
The firm’s employees also have university email addresses. In October, at least four, including Krabbe, had accounts listed in the university directory ending in “umd.edu.”
Ullmann said he was unaware the workers had university-issued email addresses. Asked why employees of a privately held company would have Maryland accounts, he said Maryland Sports Properties employees would’ve been issued umd.edu emails “in order to access systems, including COVID compliance requirements.”
Solomon, the Maryland legislator, said he would like more details on the University of Maryland contract and hoped that release of the sports betting agreement “would not rise to the level of requiring legislation.”
Solomon added, “This is the kind of thing that I hope with a conversation and some publicity around it, people would do the right thing.”
This story was produced by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The Povich Center was established with a gift from the Povich Family. The Howard Center is supported by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.