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Koch brothers’ empire spreads to college sports

Bloomberg News

Rich, powerful, secretive and controversial: The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Koch brothers were made for each other.

Koch Industries has launched a multi-year national sponsorship campaign in college sports. The company has partnered with Learfield Sports, a firm that provides sports radio programming and marketing assistance to college programs, “to help tell its story” to fans of 15 universities — many in the Big 10 and Big Twelve power conferences — and the Missouri Valley Conference. It’s not the company’s first foray into college sports — the Wichita State Shockers play in Koch Arena — but it’s a significant deal.

“College sports are a great fit for us and we’re excited to lend our support to these schools,” said Steve Lombardo, chief communications and marketing officer for Koch. “Like student athletes, our 60,000 U.S. employees understand that hard work and team spirit are fundamental to winning and success.”

Like student athletes, many of Koch’s employees also understand what it’s like to work for an organization that is against unions and and the protections they afford. The NCAA has fought efforts by Northwestern football players to unionize, touting the threat to “amateurism” and arguing that a college scholarship is compensation enough for athletes who generate nearly $1 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, political groups funded by David and Charles Koch are largely driving the push to spread union-busting right-to-work legislation, citing what they call “forced” unionization. The privately held company says it generates $115 billion in annual revenue.

There’s another similarity: As the NCAA fights increased forms of player compensation, it’s being sued for violating minimum-wage laws. The Kochs are famously opposed to the minimum wage — last June, Koch Industries executive vice president Richard Fink warned that increasing the minimum wage could turn the United States into Nazi Germany. Charles Koch has stated that the minimum wage is part of a “culture of dependency.”

The message from the Koch empire and the NCAA is clear: College athletes who can’t afford to feed themselves and Americans making $34,000 a year should consider themselves lucky.

None of this is part of Koch Industries and Learfield Sports’ marketing campaigns. But you might want to keep it all in mind the next time Koch and NCAA logos flash across your screen during a game.

Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View.

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