TeleSouth Communications, Part I

The following is Part I of a lengthy interview with TeleSouth Communications CEO Steve Davenport on his companies' relationship with Ole Miss and the Ole Miss Athletic Department. Davenport's company owns the broadcast and marketing rights to Rebel sports. Part II is published in the next story box to the right on our front page today.

In the past couple of months, there has been a lot of discussion, if not debate, among Ole Miss fans concerning radio broadcast coverage – particularly in baseball, and the marketing and promotion of the Ole Miss athletic department.

Since TeleSouth Communications owns all those rights, and more, we asked TeleSouth CEO Steve Davenport to conduct a Q & A with The Ole Miss Spirit. He obliged and came to The Spirit offices late last week.

To Davenport's credit, he basically said nothing was off limits in our interview except some exact money figures, that are public record for anyone to request and peruse.

Here are the results of that lengthy interview.

Q: Can you give us a brief history of TeleSouth and its relationship with Ole Miss?

Davenport: "TeleSouth is a company owned by me and six brothers who are attorneys and went to Ole Miss undergraduate and Law School. I own 50% and they own 50% of the stock. We bought the company in 1983. We have since expanded to include news networks, sports networks, agricultural networks, radio station ownership and collegiate sports properties. We also own a similar company in South Carolina which is operated out of Jackson, Mississippi. As far as Ole Miss is concerned, our predecessor started with Coach Steve Sloan's last season in 1982 with football and basketball radio broadcasts. Our association with Ole Miss has grown through the years from those radio broadcasts to include baseball radio broadcasts, coaches' television shows, game day football and basketball programs production and sales, signage production and sales, signage advertising sales and sports marketing. We got into the marketing end of it when (former AD) John Shafer was here. At the time, Ole Miss was doing very little marketing of events and promotions of events. Shafer asked us to take that on. We hired David Krause to head that up and he's still here. He is assisted by Connie Braseth and a couple of other employees. We are in charge of marketing and promotions for every sport, not just the big three of football, basketball and baseball. Title IX requires equal attention be given to soccer, tennis, women's sports, etc. We have employees at every event handing out things or helping direct the flow of the event. We also handle the coaches' shows and have expanded our efforts into signage as well."

Q: Tell us what Ole Miss means to TeleSouth?

Davenport: "We do substantial business with our news networks and our talk stations. SuperTalk Mississippi, which we own, is now the strongest and largest political news source in Mississippi. There are 82 counties in Mississippi and we are in 70 of them with SuperTalk Mississippi. We just purchased three stations in Southwest Mississippi that will cover that area. Our goal is to be in all counties in the next two to three years. For us and our company, from a purely business standpoint, the business we do with Ole Miss is very compatible with the rest of our businesses. We are able to entertain clients at the University. Clients want the opportunity to be a part of the atmosphere of college athletics. On the other hand, the contacts and advertising clients we make in our other businesses allow us to sell more sports advertising, thus paying dividends to both Ole Miss and us. The Henley's (his partners) went to Ole Miss. I've been going to Ole Miss events for over 30 years, but this is my business. For the Henley's, it's a heart deal, not just an investment. They got interested in TeleSouth largely because of their hearts and love of Ole Miss. The Henley's and I got together and formed this company, it wasn't because we were getting a news company, it was because we were getting the rights to Ole Miss and they wanted to be a part of it for the betterment of their alma mater. As all businesses dealing with the public do, we get criticism, but I can tell you without hesitation I get way more criticism from the Henley's than I do from anyone. They attack me every day about what are we doing for Ole Miss as a company. I have never had one of them call me and ask me why we did something extra for Ole Miss. They want us to do extra things all the time. If it were up to them, we'd do more for Ole Miss. Their heart is totally Ole Miss. It's my charge to make sound business decisions that are best for TeleSouth."

Q: You have a contract with Ole Miss to provide these services for a percentage of revenues, but it's been implied by several sources TeleSouth goes above and beyond the contract to give Ole Miss more financial help. Do you and can you expound on that premise?

Davenport: "Outside of our contract with Ole Miss, we have purchased skyboxes in both skybox areas (West side, South end zone). We currently own two West Side boxes, a South End Zone box at $250,000, we buy 10 floor seats at basketball at $1,000 apiece, we buy 20 baseball seats and have signed up for the new ones in the baseball stadium. All beyond our contract, all because we want Ole Miss to succeed, not as part of our business package. We are not obligated by contract to do those things, but it's good business and it's love of the university that drives us to go beyond the contract and invest a lot of money in Ole Miss athletics. We purchase and participate with Ole Miss on a constant basis way beyond our contract. What we do for Ole Miss changes daily. Our participation in the ProStar scoreboard at Tad Smith Coliseum allowed that project to happen sooner than it would have otherwise and that was above and beyond our contract. The new scoreboard in baseball would not have gotten off the ground as soon as it did without our help. It looks fabulous. We installed and paid for all the televisions near concession stands in the football stadium and baseball stadium. Through our contract, we get tickets for our clients to use at our discretion, but we always buy more tickets to games than the ones we get in our contract – sometimes a lot more. Whenever there is a special event going on – like the recent banquet honoring former black athletes – we contribute and help. We don't have to, by contract, but this deal is more than a document and words. At one time, we contributed directly to coaches' pay via their talent fees for doing their coaches show. The state does not allow that now, but we supplemented salaries of coaches for several years and our involvement was substantial. We feel we had a part in getting our coaches' pay at a competitive level."

Q; Discuss the radio broadcast and your plans for it before we delve into coverage concerns.

Davenport: "Radio broadcasts have been expanded in football. We now have an hour and a half pregame and postgame for every football game, home and away. We purchased a bus, a traveling studio, to take on the road so we could broadcast our pregame and postgame shows at road games. We now have roughly a six-hour football broadcast, with a very good crew of David Kellum, a loyal Rebel who does, in my opinion, a good job. This year, he will be assisted by color man Pete Cordelli. Harry Harrison, a former Ole Miss All-American, will do pregame and postgame shows and will be in the booth too in the third position. Pete was a color analyst before for us, but he got back in coaching for a brief time and Harry did the color. Pete is now available again and will be working with us again. Richard Cross is also on the pregame and postgame shows and Stan Sandroni will be on the sidelines again. The broadcast has really expanded and as far as length and information is as good as anyone's in the conference."

Q: We also hear you are working a new television deal.

Davenport: "We just signed an agreement with Comcast this week because we own the television and replay rights to Ole Miss games. Comcast purchased Time Warner in Jackson and Memphis and will have very good coverage in our area. They will do all our football games on complete game replays across the entire Comcast network on Sundays at 1 p.m. Comcast will carry the weekly Coaches' TV Shows on Thursdays at 2 p.m. Our games will be replayed wherever there is a Comcast affiliate in the Southeast. They are a huge cable company and our replays will be on there every Sunday. We are very excited about that. Also, the Oxford Cable Company will take our CSS product from Comcast and broadcast replays and they (Comcast) is trying to sell our games on a replay basis to other cable companies in our area. Also, Comcast is going to do for us a minimum of two men's and women's basketball games and two baseball games live during the year. Comcast is our new television partner. We have signed a one-year deal because we don't know where this alliance will go. Our goal is to continue the full-game replay and to get as many games as we can on television. There are great possibilities to have a lot of baseball games on TV now because of the success of the program. When you win, your product become more appealing. Baseball has become a big push item for us and we need to get as many games on as possible. I think the Ole Miss family will be very pleased with what is happening with the Comcast deal."

Q: Radio coverage of Rebel games has probably been the most discussed and controversial aspect of TeleSouth and Ole Miss. Give us some background on how that works and we'll go from there.

Davenport: "When you talk about radio coverage, you have to talk about our market of Mississippi and Memphis. In the early 1970s, most radio stations were owned by Mississippians and were somewhat independent of any big conglomerate. That picture has totally changed. Probably less than 10% of radio stations in Mississippi are owned by Mississippians. They are basically owned by large corporations or religious groups. It has gotten more and more difficult to get stations to take collegiate sports. It's just a fact that we have to deal with daily. Every radio station, however, is in business, just like we are. Their goal is the same as ours, to make money. In my opinion, Ole Miss does not have the coverage we desire for football and basketball, but it is a lot better than it's been. We are in most of the markets with a strong presence."

Q: Give us a breakdown of where you feel the radio coverage is strong and where it's weak.

Davenport: "For football and basketball, our coverage – with the exceptions of the Coast and Natchez – is the best it's been. The Coast and Memphis/DeSoto County have been the most difficult for us, but the good news is that we just signed a deal to broadcast Ole Miss football, basketball and baseball on a 100,000 watt station on the Coast that will cover from Destin, FL, to Bay St. Louis. The people on the Coast will not have the problems they have had the last 30 years. We need better coverage in Memphis/DeSoto County, Natchez and the Louisville area, but the Louisville problem has been solved. We'll be on a 50KW station there next year. They aren't taking it because of me or the alums in that area. They are taking Ole Miss sports because of Men's Basketball Coach Andy Kennedy, who is from that area. Sometimes it's unbelievable what turns a station hot and cold to a product and it changes every day. We have other small pockets in the state where one school can be heard and another can't, but we work on those daily. If some of your readers are in those areas, pick up the phone and call us at TeleSouth Communications in Jackson and we'll see what we can do."

Q: Why is Natchez a problem?

Davenport: "In Natchez, up until two years ago, we had the largest station in the area, 100,000 watts. Those games were being supported by an alumni group in that area. There was a disagreement between the alums and the radio station owner about a non-conference baseball game not being aired and we lost that stations' support. Consequently, we cannot get in Natchez because the same group owns every radio station in the area. That doesn't mean we are going to quit trying – we call all the time to try to work out a deal, but we haven't yet. We are also meeting and calling stations that reach Natchez from across the line in Louisiana. We fight that type of battle every day in the radio business, which is very fickle. This is not an easy business, but we will be relentless in our attack for better coverage. We have to be and want to be."

Q: You say "it changes every day." Give us an example so we can better understand the situation.

Davenport: "We are fighting a battle in Meridian right now. People are upset we don't have baseball in Meridian. I'm upset we don't have baseball in Meridian. The station we are involved with there would like to have carried baseball, however, due to lack of sponsorship, it just wasn't something they could justify financially. For Football and Basketball this past season they had only three sponsors. The station manager in Meridian wants to carry Ole Miss sports but needs support from the community to do so. They have just signed a contract with us for football and basketball for the upcoming season to broadcast the games on WJDQ-FM which is a 100,000 watt station. This is big for Ole Miss in Meridian and we would like for them to carry baseball, but their decision will be based on the support of the community and sponsorships. It is a constant struggle with radio stations. The GM in Meridian told me he gets complaints all the time about not carrying a game, but nobody wants to sponsor it. We get calls all the time about a radio station wanting our games. We go in to sell the sponsorships in that area and can't sell them. The radio station is being asked to give up six hours of time on a football broadcast and not make any money in some cases. We have stations we own that lose money on Ole Miss basketball, but we are going to force-feed it to our station managers because we own the rights to the broadcasts. We can't force-feed a station we don't own. They have to see profit or they are out. Radio station managers are paid on revenues generated. If they give up six hours, for instance, of time for something not paying off, they are taking money out of their own pockets. They aren't going to do that. I want to make one point very clear here – I'm not suggesting it is the alums' responsibility to buy sponsorships. It's our responsibility to sell them, but in some markets that is not an easy thing to do without the support of alums. Our sales team battles all the time the argument of business owners – some of them Ole Miss supporters – who say ‘we can't sponsor Ole Miss without sponsoring MSU or USM or Jackson State' or whoever is also prominent in that area. And many of them cannot afford all three or even two. That's part of the battle and where Ole Miss alums have to step up with some type of help."

(Continued on next front page box to the right.)

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