By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Auburn Athletics has granted FOX Sports an exclusive contract to manage its multimedia rights and sponsorship sales, for all of Auburn’s sports initiates. These include, intellectual property rights, radio broadcasts for all sports, coaches’ television shows, live TV rights, athletics publications, and more.
The agreement with FOX Sports spells the end of the University’s long-standing relationship with IMG Sports, who purchased the rights from Mike Hubbard in 2003. Hubbard’s Auburn Network radio station has relied heavily on broadcasting Auburn sports, as perhaps its most lucrative revenue stream. Those close to the deal speculate that FOX Sports will turn to another Lee County radio station with a bigger footprint to broadcast Auburn sporting event.
Approximately three years ago, Hubbard moved Auburn sports broadcasting to WGZZ 94.3 in Auburn, which is one of the smallest signals in the area. The change has solicited a growing number of complaints because the low-watt signal. Auburn Athletics sponsored a game day focus group in February and one item that was discussed was the poor coverage of Hubbard’s station. Several attendees asked why they could not pick up baseball games in certain areas of town and other sports such as football and basketball could not even be received inside their game day venue whether it was a house, condo, or RV.
In a University press release, Auburn Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs said, “FOX Sports will allow us to grow our brand nationally, and enhance our brand value. The entire FOX Sports team has proven how much they believe in Auburn throughout this entire process.”
An Auburn alumnus with close ties to the athletic community speaking on background said, “Auburn’s relationship with Mike Hubbard has been disastrous, and they have woken up to the fact, that dealing with him has been a disservice to the University. This new contract proves it.”
IMG Sports dropped Hubbard from its management team in 2010.
In this email exchange, former Gov. Bob Riley asked Hubbard if he was out with the sports media management giant:
Riley to Hubbard 1/20/11:
Minda just told me you were released from the Network. What’s going on?
Hubbard to Riley 1/20/11:
Not immediately. But the new company says I spend too much time on politics. They told me to choose. I think Auburn is contributing to all of this, too. Susan is freaked out. I dread going home.
Riley to Hubbard 1/20/11:
You think Auburn is WORKING AGAINST YOU? Also do they want you to cut back on politics or quit politics. Heck you just won the National Championship!
Hubbard to Riley 1/20/11:
The want me to quit politics or my job. Or they will entertain a proposal where I work on contract at a dramatic pay cut. I think the Athletic Department is working against me. Hard to explain. You would think that they would like to have the Speaker on their team.
Riley to Hubbard 1/21/11:
Never realized that Jay had a problem with you—I think they do not realize the power of your office. If it was the administration I could better understand the logic.
Neither Riley or Hubbard seemed to understand why IMG didn’t want the “Speaker” on the team, or the worth of Hubbard’s political influence.
Such use of his office led a Lee County Grand Jury to indict Hubbard on 23 felony counts of public corruption.
Hubbard’s relationship with Auburn Athletics has experienced some twists and turns, reportedly in the late 1990s, when his Auburn Network began experiencing financial difficulties.
Trying to rebuild and facing what he apparently perceived as possible retribution from the school’s athletic director, Hubbard turned to then Auburn University’s chief lobbyist, Buddy Mitchell, for assistance. Mitchell said Hubbard first acknowledged to him his that his company was on the verge of going bankrupt. Initially, forced by Auburn to go through a competitive bid process for the first time, according to Mitchell’s statements.
For years, it was speculated that Hubbard was given an unfair advantage in obtaining the Auburn contract. Mitchell, who was executive director of the Office of Governmental Affairs at Auburn from 1993 to 2004, said in a sworn affidavit, that he personally delivered the competitors’ proposals to Hubbard.
In accepting Hubbard’s five-year, $8.5 million deal in 2002, Auburn, in turn, rejected a competitor’s bid that offered $12.5 million over the same period. That meant Auburn received $4 million less under Hubbard’s proposal than under the bid more financially beneficial to Auburn.
Mitchell detailed in his affidavit how Hubbard approached him numerous times in 2001 and 2002, “desperately” seeking his help in obtaining copies of his competitors’ proposals, which he eventually delivered to Hubbard.
Buddy Mitchell died in 2014, not long after recording a television commercial calling Hubbard a crook.
“With FOX Sports, we are aligning our strategic goals with a national brand.” Auburn will be one of a select group of Power 5 properties operated by FOX Sports. As a flagship property, Auburn will benefit from specialized and personalized treatment. This belief is supported by their revenue projections and their valuation of Auburn Athletics,” according to the Auburn Athletics website.