Starkman: UWM CEO Mat Ishbia learns money can’t buy love in Crain’s Detroit newsroom

September 10, 2021, 1:52 PM

This columnist, a Los Angeles writer, is a former Detroit News business reporter who blogs at Starkman Approved.

By Eric Starkman

United Wholesale Mortgage’s billionaire CEO Mat Ishbia has learned a valuable lesson: Money can’t buy you love in the newsroom of Crain’s Detroit Business.

One week after his firm paid a tidy sum to be featured on the cover of Crain’s Detroit Business’ annual “Cool Places to Work” issue, the publication slammed UWM for securing individual $6,000 sponsorship deals with all 133 members of Michigan State's men’s basketball and football teams for the 2021-22 season, but ignoring MSU's female players.

Mat Ishbia, MSU supporter and superfan (Photo: UWM)

“What is surprising is that a CEO so sensitive to his company's public relations image would not include female athletes in this first round of funding,” executive editor Kelley Root wrote in a commentary rife with a passion one rarely finds in Crain’s. ”The roughly $90,000 cost to add the school's 15 women's basketball players to the list is a rounding error for a company that made more than $3 billion in net income last year.

“The snub is ironic given how hard women at all levels have to work to secure the resources they deserve. Inequities in women's sports are endemic, from small private colleges to the elite U.S. Women's soccer team. UWM has said it will consider compensating women's teams in the future, but the message for now is clear: Men are worth more.”

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Root noted that UWM essentially bought every player on two teams.

“It paves the way for the most cynical of funding formulas: The universities with the most billionaires will win, and the boosters can now pay the players directly above the table,” she wrote.

UWM doesn’t appear to be on Root’s personal list of southeastern Michigan’s coolest companies.

Michigan Representatives Laura Pohutsky (D-Livonia), chair of the Michigan Progressive Women’s Caucus, and Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham), a former Michigan State club figure skater, also slammed Isbhia’s sponsorship deal.

“It’s beyond disappointing that United Wholesale Mortgage is only investing in MSU’s male athletes, Pohutsky said in a news release. “In 2021 this sort of blatant sexism is unacceptable. All athletes, regardless of their gender, should have the same opportunities and be invested in.”

This stinkeye should be for you, Mr. Ishbia (Photo: MSU)

Ishbia likely thought his sponsorship deals would generate another round of favorable media coverage, noting the one upmanship to support MSU between Ishbia and Rocket Mortgage’s Dan Gilbert, as this story in the Wall Street Journal describes. Ishbia, who mostly warmed the bench in four seasons playing basketball with the Spartans, and Gilbert are both MSU alums.

In response to the criticism, Ishbia issued this statement:

"We have rooted relationships with the men's basketball program as well as football that allowed us to complete these agreements faster and more efficiently," it said. "This is new to everyone and we are continuing to explore additional MSU teams. ...This was the first step to understand the (sponsorship) process, and we're always looking at different ways we can help out Spartan student athletes."

MSU athletes reportedly won’t sport UWM logos on their jerseys and instead will promote the UWM brand on their social media accounts. That makes a lot of sense. Most home buyers looking for a mortgage broker immediately look to college jocks for a recommendation.

I love the passion Root, Pohutsky, and Manoogian have shown for Spartan women's athletics, but it would be nice if they’d harness some of that passion for another critical issue that will adversely impact their respective readers and constituents: Spectrum Health’s takeover of ailing Beaumont Health. That deal will result in higher costs and poorer patient care. Spectrum’s former CFO has warned it could result in a “massive financial loss.”

Beaumont CEO John Fox stands to pocket tens of millions from the takeover to haul back to his home in Atlanta. Keeping Beaumont independent would save a considerable sum of money – money that easily could be used to sponsor MSU’s female athletics and other Michigan initiatives deserving of support.

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