The Supreme Court yesterday broke more than 30 years of control by the National Collegiate Athletic Association of college football telecasts, freeing individual universities to make television deals and opening national and local airwaves to games previously kept off the air.
The court said the NCAA regulatory plan, which strictly limited the number and viewing times of games telecast and prevented schools from negotiating television contracts, restricts competition and violates federal antitrust laws.
The universities of Oklahoma and Georgia, both football powerhouses, challenged the NCAA plan, saying they believed that they could earn more money if freed from strict limits on numbers of their games available for television.
The restrictions are "inconsistent with the fundamental goal of antitrust law," Justice John Paul Stevens said for the 7-to-2 majority because they reduce "the importance of consumer preference."
Under the ruling, which has no effect on the televising of professional or other college sports, the college football television market will be open to free competition for the first time.
Lawyers said yesterday that the decision, supported by the Justice Department, means generally that more college football will be televised, including more games involving celebrated teams and more games of local or regional interest.
Last season, 242 games were televised live nationally or regionally. No one interviewed yesterday could say exactly how many more games will be televised this fall or what the ruling's long-range impact might be on the sport.
The decision is expected to hurt schools with small football programs. Under the NCAA plan, some occasionally were awarded network television exposure and shared the revenue.
The decision invalidates NCAA contracts with ABC, CBS and cable television's Turner Broadcasting System worth hundreds of millions of dollars. NBC, which has not televised live college football in years, said yesterday that it is too late for it to arrange such coverage this fall but that it will explore future possibilities.
NBC also said it now sees a need for "some type of umbrella organization that can create order out of the chaos that is impending."
Along with college football's major powers, independent networks, local stations and cable operators should benefit from the decision. They were sometimes barred from televising college football because the NCAA awarded exclusive rights to the major networks or decreed that televising a local game might diminish attendance at nearby games.
Michael Ortman of Home Team Sports, a regional pay cable network here, said HTS will try to televise regional games, including the University of Virginia's games against Navy and Virginia Tech. Sandra Pastoor, programming director at WTTG here, said Channel 5 is interested in talking with the University of Maryland about televising its games.
"My general observation," said J. Laurent Scharff, who represented the Association of Independent Television Stations in a friend-of-the-court brief, "is that you are going to see a lot more college football games on television in addition to the games carried on the national networks. They may be carried by individual local stations, by regional or even larger ad hoc networks" and on cable television, he said.
"It will be very much like college basketball," said Andy Coats, who represented Oklahoma and Georgia before the court. "Someone will put together a national package. Someone will put together a regional package." Then local stations will be free to pick up any games not booked, he said.
"It's very disappointing, of course. It looks like we've got problems," said George H. Gangwere, a lawyer for the NCAA.. He said he is still studying the ruling to determine whether any NCAA authority to regulate telecasts survived.
The NCAA, the national supervisory authority for almost all major-college athletics, began exerting control over television broadcasts in 1950, when games first began appearing on television regularly. It was largely concerned about the telecasts' effect on attendance, on the theory that fans would stay home and watch televised games instead of traveling to local stadiums.
In 1981, Oklahoma and Georgia took on the system, negotiating a million-dollar contract with NBC through the newly formed College Football Association, composed of most major collegiate football powers. Coats said the schools were concerned about declining football revenue, which he said is used to support overall athletic programs.
When the NCAA, defending its contracts with ABC and CBS, threatened the schools with disciplinary action, Oklahoma and Georgia successfully sued in U.S. District Court. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the schools, and the NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court.
The NCAA grants networks the right to televise games but does not decree which ones. Broadcasters decide that, then negotiate with each school for television rights.
But, exercising its control over member schools, the NCAA carefully limits how many games may be televised each season and establishes the price for television contracts. It also limits a team to six live television appearances over two seasons.
Justice Stevens said the NCAA plan violates the Sherman Act prohibition against antitrust conspiracies. Individual competitors, the colleges, "lose their freedom to compete," he said.
"At the same time, the television plan eliminates competitors from the market, since only those broadcasters able to bid on television rights covering the entire NCAA can compete," he said. " . . . Many telecasts that would occur in a competitive market are foreclosed by the NCAA plan."
Most significantly, he said, the price of contracts is increased artificially while the number of programs is decreased.
Stevens rejected such NCAA justifications for the plan as the argument that it protects attendance and helps balance football competition among schools. Even if they were true, he said, "good motives will not validate an otherwise anticompetitive practice."
He also rejected NCAA claims that it does not control the television football market and thus is incapable of exercising monopoly power. Stevens said that the NCAA does control the market and that, even if it did not, that would be irrelevant.
More than conventional business litigants in antitrust cases, the NCAA has leeway to coordinate activities among member schools, he said.
The plan is not automatically illegal, he said. But "by curtailing output and blunting the ability of member institutions to respond to consumer preference, the NCAA has restricted rather than enhanced the place of intercollegiate athletics in the nation's life," Stevens said.
Justices Byron R. White, an All-America running back known as "Whizzer" White at the University of Colorado, and William H. Rehnquist dissented. White said the court incorrectly treated the NCAA plan as a "purely commercial venture" undertaken "in pursuit of profits."
The plan "fosters the goal of amateurism by spreading revenues among various schools and reducing the financial incentives towards professionalism," White said. " . . . When these values are factored into the balance, the NCAA's television plan seems eminently reasonable."
The Justice Department had asked the court to adopt just the position it took yesterday, declaring the plan illegal based on a limited analysis of its economic impact rather than holding it automatically illegal under the antitrust law.
The government called this a "middle ground" between the "two extremes" of prohibiting such arrangements in all circumstances and conducting protracted economic analyses of their impact.