You may have watched the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Game between Georgia and Oklahoma, which Georgia won in Double Overtime. If you didn’t see it, I would recommend you find a way to watch a replay because that’s what College Football is supposed to be.
It was the first time Georgia and Oklahoma ever met on the football field. But, the two schools have met before – in a Courtroom – and because they did, you are literally able to park yourself on your couch each Saturday during the college football season, consume numerous games, and not move until well past midnight. Something that just 30 plus years ago you could not do.
Television has long been in love with College Basketball and why not? You can cover a game economically and make it look like a first class broadcast by using no more than 4 cameras. It also fits comfortably into a two-hour time slot most of the time and television has very little effect on attendance. Most of the arenas are moderate size with a few exceptions and the “hard core” basketball schools like Kentucky and North Carolina who both play in a large arena are always going to get sell out crowds.
But, College Football on television hasn’t always been a given and it remained under the very tight control of the NCAA until a landmark 1984 decision from the United States Supreme Court in the case of National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia Athletic Association, 468 U.S. 85 (1984). That decision changed the landscape, took Division 1 football away from NCAA control and ushered in the age of wall-to-wall games you enjoy today. It also is – in my opinion – a precursor to the end of the NCAA as your know it within the next decade.
The first school to ever televise one of its college football games was the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania in 1938, at a time television was in its infancy. From 1940 to 1950, Penn arranged for all of its home games to be televised. That got the NCAA’s attention in a hurry.
The NCAA, which let’s be honest is nothing more than a pandering politically correct organization that constantly claims its priority is the “student/athletes” and then does things that show they care little about the student athletes, is also nothing if not a group of control freaks. So in 1951, the NCAA formed a committee to study television’s impact on College Football. Not surprisingly, according to the Supreme Court opinion, the Committed concluded that “television does have an adverse effect on college football attendance and unless brought under some control threatens to seriously harm the nation’s overall athletic and physical system. The television problem is truly a national one and requires collective action by the colleges.” Translated that means, we have no real evidence that television effects attendance other than what we just made up, but since we like to control everything we need to reign in this television thing now. And, boy did they ever.
The NCAA developed a television plan from 1952 – 1977 where only one game per week could be televised and there was a total blackout on 3 of the 10 regular season Saturdays. A team could appear only two times per season. That’s why if you grew up in Virginia in the early 70s like I did, your exposure to college football was over the Virginia Tech Sports Radio Network and the Sunday replays of Notre Dame games with Lindsey Nelson. I have to tell you that watching a full game in 30 minutes was awesome. and I can still hear Lindsey saying “there was no further scoring in the first quarter, we move ahead to later action.”
The only school to buck the plan was Penn who told the NCAA that they would continue to televise all of their home football games. The NCAA declared Penn a “member institution in bad standing.” The four schools scheduled to play Penn that season refused to go through with the games, and having no other choice, Penn relented and also went with the NCAA’s plan.
From 1952 – 1977, the NCAA’s plan was implemented through a series of two-year contracts with ABC holding exclusive rights to televise college football from 1965 forward. In 1978, the NCAA signed a four-year contract with ABC on the same terms and conditions. But, in 1981, the NCAA expanded its television footprint somewhat signing a contract with both ABC and CBS for the period of 1982 – 1985. At the time, CBS’s college football inventory consisted of the Sun Bowl, Cotton Bowl and a handful of other bow games not under NCAA control. But, the network had figured out that College Sports could be extremely lucrative and had in 1982 grabbed the rights to televise the NCAA’s signature event, the NCAA basketball tournament.
While the NCAA expanded to two networks, it still held tight control over the broadcasts. ABC and CBS were granted what were called “14 exposures” over the life of the season. The networks agreed to pay minimum aggregate compensation to member institutions whose games they broadcast of $131,750,000.00. Each network was given the right to negotiate directly with an institution for a particular game broadcast. They did it in draft form with each network alternately selecting the games they wanted to broadcast. So, for example, if ABC decided it really wanted the Tennessee-Alabama game, it would make that selection first. CBS would get to pick second and say they were interested in Nebraska-Oklahoma, they’d select that and so on until they had filled out their “14 exposures.” Once a game was selected by the network, the network would then go to the member institution who was the home team and negotiate directly over the amount of compensation, game time, etc.
The NCAA mandated that within a two year period, 82 member institutions had to appear on live television and no member could appear more than six times, with a maximum of four national broadcasts. There was a set maximum of the number of game broadcasts that could be televised within a two year window.
But, lurking the background during this time period was the College Football Association (“CFA”). Originally formed in the late 1979s for the purpose of promoting college football, the CFA also saw a way to make more money for its members and increase television exposure. In 1981, the CFA, which consisted of most of the major conferences except the Big 10 and Pac-10, and also included Notre Dame, entered into a contract with NBC for the telecast of CFA members’ games. There would be more appearances and more money from a network desperate to get back into college sports after losing the basketball tournament to CBS.
The NCAA responded by telling CFA members that if they put their games on NBC, they would face NCAA sanctions and not limited just to football. That meant the NCAA was ready to freeze out CFA members on other sports including the signature basketball tournament, which having moved to CBS was about to explode into the national event it is today.
So two CFA members, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia went into Court in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma and sued the NCAA under the Federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act which forbids unreasonable restraint of trade. The two schools won in District Court, where the Court described the NCAA’s football television plan as a “classic cartel”. They then won on appeal, and won in the United States Supreme Court where the Supreme Court said clearly the NCAA football plan was a restraint on free trade.
The United States Supreme Court thus opened up free trade on college football. The CFA, which has now gone the way of the dinosaur, entered into contracts with CBS and ESPN. The Big Ten and Pac-10 signed up with ABC which necessarily resulted in the Rose Bowl, a staple on NBC, switching to ABC. Conferences and member schools were free to enter into their own television deals. For example, the ACC entered into a regional syndication deal with Raycom Sports, a longtime broadcaster of ACC basketball. A group of several independent Northeast and Midwest schools like West Virginia, Syracuse, Boston College and Cincinnati, teamed up to strike a broadcast deal with Raycom under the umbrella of “Great American Football” because nothing says Great American Football like a game in half-empty Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. And, Virginia Tech cut a deal with Charlotte, North Carolina based Creative Sports for the televising of some of its home games.
The sea changed again in 1990 when the CFA entered into a deal with ABC and ESPN to televise their games, leaving CBS behind. Notre Dame didn’t like that idea of having to share the spotlight with Big-10 and Pac-10 and entered into its own lucrative college broadcast deal with NBC. It also opened the door for lesser conferences and even lower divisions like I-AA to strike deals for streaming games on computers and tablets under the umbrella of ESPN.
In 1996, another change occurred when the SEC pulled out of the CFA – effectively killing it – and signed a deal with CBS. The deal, which also originally put Big East games on CBS – is now exclusively an SEC broadcast deal and is among the richest in college sports. When SEC Presidents and A.D’s gather in Destin, Florida every April for spring meetings they walk out with checks for millions of dollars directly attributed to the SEC Television deal.
Without Oklahoma and Georgia stepping up and saying enough is enough, we wouldn’t be here today. There wouldn’t be an SEC Network (I’m not sure that’s a good thing anyway) or the soon to be ACC Network. And from my perspective, the NCAA’s concerns on attendance seem to be overblown. College Football is woven into the fabric of the country and if there is a game on Saturday, there is going to be butts in the seats and tailgating all over campus. It’s a fair question to ask that if College Football hadn’t become such a television attracting would it be as successful as it is today? It’s not w a 12-month sport with fans clamoring for information on their teams and has opened up ridiculous activities like tracking athletic director’s planes in search of new coaches.
The NCAA’s defeat in 1984 was a big one, and it’s my belief that the organization will be a complete shell of itself within a decade, akin to the NAIA in which it governs nothing but smaller conferences and smaller institutions. The College Football Playoff has shown the power 5 conferences that they can go their own way and be successful. Expand each of those leagues to 16 and you will have a group of schools that can establish their own organization with their own basketball tournament and other championship events. I can assure you that CBS and TBS will not pay millions of dollars to televise an NCAA basketball tournament where the number one seeds are the champions from Conference USA, the Big South, the Southern Conference and the Atlantic Sun. But, they will pay millions of dollars for the other Power-5 tournament.
Nothing stays the same forever, and when college sports changes again you can look back to 1984 and thank Georgia and Oklahoma for not only that but a classic New Year’s Day football game.