Summit League bromance is risky business

Photo: Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft and Summit League Commissioner are ‘close personal friends’.

When does a partnership go too far and threaten fairness in decision making? At what point does the principal get too close to the customer to negotiate a good deal. And, at what point does the customer start to influence internal decisions made by the principal with potential risk to the principal’s interests and other stakeholders?

The Summit League may be headed down that road with Commissioner Tom Douple and the league’s primary sponsor, Sanford Health, the third largest employer in the State of South Dakota. The Summit League recently moved their permanent headquarters from Elmhurst, Illinois to the Sanford Sports Complex in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

According to an article from KWSN, the relationship between the Summit League’s commissioner, Tom Douple, and Sanford Health is very close.

“Tom and The Summit League have been wonderful friends of Sanford Health and the Sioux Falls community for more than a decade, and we welcome them to our city,” said Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and CEO of Sanford Health. “We have seen firsthand the national growth of the league through Tom’s leadership, and we look forward to watching that success continue.”

“They (Sanford Health) had been asking us to move out to Sioux Falls for a number of years,” Douple told KWSN’s Sports Talk with Craig and John Wednesday, a few hours after the conference made the impending move from suburban Chicago official in a press release, which featured glowing quotes about the partnership from Sanford CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft.

“(Sanford executives) said here’s an office building we’re going to build (and said), ‘why don’t ya’ll come out here,” Douple said.

Douple also confirmed Sanford officials have lobbied him to consider Augustana as a new member of the league if the school decides to make the leap to Div. I athletics.

“Of course,” Douple said, chuckling. “I mean, my gosh, with 28,000 employees, there’s bound to be a bunch of employees that are positive with Augustana, along with a bunch of other schools that they represent.”

So, it looks like Dauple and Sanford Health are very close. But are they too close?

According to the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, Avera Health is the largest employer in Sioux Falls with 12,187 employees. And there are sure to be a few more employers in the Summit League footprint with similar or greater resources than Sanford Health. Will the Summit League’s current affiliation with Sanford Health allow the league to negotiate fairly with Sanford and pursue sponsorships which might be in direct competition with Sanford Health? Or, even identify and pursue a new primary sponsor that does not compete with Sanford?

The Denny Sanford PREMIER Center is home to the annual Summit League basketball tournament. And, it is, without a doubt a local and league success by any number of measures. However, is the current Summit League commissioner objective enough to consider other venues if they emerge? This task will be made especially difficult for Douple while sitting in his office that Sanford built. If the Omaha Sports and Convention Bureau approached Douple, would he give them a fair hearing? Or would any other interested party be allowed to compete for the tournament? Would he put the tournament ‘out for bid’ for leverage to get the best deal – even if it ‘cost’ Sanford?

Look, business partnerships are critical. But the optics of this has to raise eyebrows. But the conflict goes deeper.

The CEO of Sanford, Kelby Krabbenhoft’s, is a major sponsor of Augustana, the Summit League, and four of Augustana’s former Div. II Dakota school rivals who play in it. Krabbenhoft was a driving force behind Douple deciding to move the conference basketball tournaments and league offices to Sioux Falls. “I’ve talked to Tom Douple about it. He’s a very close, personal friend of mine. This is all about relationships, and he is a process person.”

Yes it’s about relationships. Fortunately, however, it will ultimately be the athletic directors and University presidents who make the final call on new conference membership.

All good things come to an end – and when this one does, it will be hard to unwind this web. Name another athletic conference in America where a key sponsor is so deeply involved in the affairs of the conference. Bet you can’t think of one.

So the underlying question is simple: Can Douple hold strong and represent the interest of the Summit League, especially dealing with Sanford? Hard to tell – and unfair to make a final judgment now either way.

Maybe if the partnership were more balanced – like Douple telling Krabbenhoft to install a new MRI machine at Sanford’s Lake Nordon, South Dakota medical clinic, I’d feel better. Wouldn’t you?