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Could Ripple Effect from College Bribery Scandal Hit Sports Events?

20 Mar, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Unless you’ve been living in a fallout shelter, it isn’t possible to miss the news of the college admission scandal that broke last week and resulted in several dozen indictments.

The question, however, is whether (and how much) it has to do with sports events. And the answer is, surprisingly, that it does have the potential to impact this industry – and not necessarily at the college level.

One of the major players in the scandal has been Mark Riddell, who up until the news broke, had held the position of director of college entrance exam preparation at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a sports-focused prep school that has trained hundreds of athletes who have turned pro. According to CNN, Riddell had bribed SAT and ACT proctors to allow him to either take the tests himself or exchange the high schooler’s submitted answer sheet with one he had completed. Sometimes, he would allegedly correct the students’ answers by leveraging fake learning disabilities. (The school announced last Tuesday night that Riddell had been “suspended indefinitely” pending an investigation.)

Outside of its academy, however, IMG as a whole has strong ties to the sports business industry, putting on events for sports as varied as the Professional Bull Riders, the Color Run and Tough Mudder. It has event-specific properties as well, including the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon (the irony is not wasted), and the Vans US Open of Surfing. (Here is a complete list of properties and events associated with IMG). It also manages leagues, including the eLeague, an eSports league with televised events and UFC, the mixed martial arts organization.

And IMG manages venues; in fact, its website notes six venues on the Bradenton campus alone. A number of youth organizations have held events there. U.S. Youth Soccer, for example, held its ODP Boys Winter Interregional there in December of 2018. And, Top Drawer Soccer notes, it has a top-down relationship with the sport: “IMG Academy is familiar territory for the U-17 MNT, who competes annually at the Nike International Friendlies in nearby Lakewood Ranch, Fla. and gathered in the area for a training camp last month.  IMG Academy was also home of the U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program from 1999 to 2017, an initiative that brought together the country’s best young players for full-time daily training with the U-17 MNT staff.”

US Youth Soccer did not respond to several requests for comment from SDM as to whether it would continue to hold events at the facility.

Since the scandal broke, IMG has taken steps to dissociate itself as much as possible. According to Deadspin, Riddell’s bio has been removed from the IMG website. The Tampa Bay Times notes that IMG has stated it has no reason to believe Riddell’s actions affected any of its staff – or the students beyond those with whom he was directly associated.

But association with a distasteful scandal is something nobody wants. So in light of the many tendrils of the IMG organization, and the many event owners that stand to be affected by association with it, how likely is it that some event owners, at least, will dissociate from the organization?

So far, events are being cautious. PBR has noted it has no statement to make on the issue. IMG Academy referred its questions along to another source within IMG; however, no comment was received by press time. Other events (the Color Run, Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, Tough Mudder and Vans US Open of Surfing) did not respond to inquiries from SDM asking for comment.

Matthew Pace, a partner at Rimon Law in New York, New York, represents clients in a broad range of sports business matters. According to him, the scandal is unlikely to have much, if any, blowback onto events currently managed or produced by IMG.

“I don’t think it will go that far,” he notes. “If anything, it’ll push people toward doing things legitimately, but I don’t really think it’ll have anything to do with the event space.”

He notes that if an event has been looking for a reason to remove itself from its arrangement with IMG, the scandal might be brought up, “but as a lawyer, I can tell you it would be a very difficult way to get out of a contract.”

But whether or not affects are directly affected, the ripple effect is far from good. As USA TODAY notes, “Either way, the investigation and Riddell’s direct involvement is bad for IMG, and that makes it bad for elite prep sports across the country. When the most uniformly dominant program anywhere in America is connected to the most uniformly heinous scandal in recent recruiting memory, that’s not a good sign for the school or the larger sports culture.”

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