THE SUPREME COURT'S TV RULING: WILL THE VIEWER BENEFIT MOST?
There may be some delicious irony in last week's Supreme Court decision on the televising of college football. The majority opinion, delivered by associate justice John Paul Stevens, may well prove to be an emancipation proclamation not for the nation's major colleges, many of which coveted the supposed freedom of an open market, but for the viewer at home. Some colleges that had been expecting to make a financial killing could wind up making less money, depending on how far the TV ratings slide in the coming football glut. The only truly free soul will be the armchair quarterback, who never asked the justices for more games in the first place. He now will be able to gorge himself on a smorgasbord of Saturday games that evidently will be shown by networks, cable programmers, pay-TV outlets, syndicators and independent stations from noon to midnight.
By ruling that the NCAA may no longer serve as the colleges' sole agent in the sale of TV rights, the Supreme Court killed a four-year $263.5 million deal the NCAA signed in 1982 with ABC and CBS, as well as a two-year $11.1 million arrangement signed last May with ESPN. Theoretically, the court established an open market in which the schools could peddle their games independently. In practice, it created such complete chaos that by week's end the 105 colleges in Division I-A were attempting to cede back some of their new freedom to an umbrella group that would serve as their bargaining agent: either the NCAA again, or the College Football Association, which represents 63 major powers and may work out a coalition agreement with the non-CFA Big Ten and Pac-10.
These groups now are rushing to come up with new "voluntary" plans to bring a semblance of order to the TV scene. Juan C. Burciaga, the district court judge whose decision the Supreme Court upheld, is expected to review the NCAA's proposal in the next few weeks. Each scenario calls for the continued involvement of ABC and CBS, which would air blue-chip games in their customary Saturday time slots of noon and 3:45 p.m. E.S.T., but there wouldn't necessarily be a restriction on the number of TV appearances a school could make. There would also be a third Saturday "window," usually in prime time, allowing the colleges or conferences to sell games to local stations, syndicators or cable carriers. Burciaga could junk the NCAA's proposal as yet another instance of restraint of trade or he could tailor a plan to his own liking. The only certainty is that college football is going the way of college basketball, with games proliferating all over the dial.
Wall-to-wall football should be a fearsome prospect indeed for the smaller colleges and for all but a handful of the most powerful schools. The fact is, the colleges need lots of network dollars to make their economy hum. But as CBS Sports president Neal Pilson told The Wall Street Journal, "When supply is up and demand is constant, price goes down." As the exclusive over-the-air carriers of college football, CBS and ABC had been prepared to pay each school this fall at least $600,000 for a national telecast, even though both networks were losing a total of about $7 million annually from their TV contracts with the NCAA. With their exclusivity diminished, they almost certainly will pay far less—perhaps $400,000 per team. The colleges will have to make up in local or regional TV income what they lose in network revenue. Top 20 schools—Notre Dame, say, or Georgia and Oklahoma, which were the schools that brought suit against the NCAA—probably will be better off. Even that's not certain, though; when the Sooners put out their games for TV bids twice this spring, they pulled them back both times because the offers were too low. Meanwhile, less prestigious I-A powers, such as Arkansas or North Carolina, easily could suffer. Last year college football ratings declined 10%, reflecting the general trend in TV sports. This year, thanks to the glut, they may drop to the level of test patterns. Will advertisers clamor for spots on regional conference packages, say, when the networks already have cherry-picked the best games for themselves?
One athletic director who isn't enamored of the future is Warner Afford of Mississippi. By sharing SEC network money, Ole Miss made $743,000 on TV football last year. Under the new math, Afford expects to make far less. "Don't forget what overexposure did to basketball last year," he says, noting that the SEC syndicators reduced their annual payment to each school from about $500,000 to $100,000 when the ratings plummeted. "I just don't believe that many schools are strong enough to go out there and demand the dollars they think they are going to get."
Stay tuned. This may become TV's newest survival competition, measured by how many games a fan can eyeball in one day.
Despite the Colts' switch to Indianapolis, NBC still plans to telecast the team's games into Baltimore on a regular basis next season. In fact, on a more than regular basis since Colt home games in Indianapolis don't have to be blacked out in Baltimore. That means that Baltimoreans could see all the Colt games on TV.