College football is being deregulated.
Following U.S. District Judge Juan Burciaga's decision this week to void -- effective immediately -- the NCAA's $280.5 million in football agreements with ABC, CBS and the Turner Broadcasting System, it seems the only law still in effect in TV sports this fall is based on Murphy's: whatever can go on the air, will go on the air.
The networks say nothing will change this weekend, but in the short run, Burciaga's ruling could mean chaos -- particularly if TV time is suddenly opened up by an NFL players' strike next week, and networks, cable companies, sports packagers and colleges themselves scramble to fill the airwaves (and to entice advertisers) with real live college football.
In the long run, the effects are similarly unpredictable. The assessments range from boom (all kinds of college football on television, commercial and cable, mostly regional or local) to doom (many schools' football programs might fail because live attendance would suffer, and successful teams' TV revenues will no longer be shared with less-successful schools). Some people even picture a 20-team league -- why don't we call it the NCFL? -- made up of the likes of USC, Notre Dame and Michigan, whose games go to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, the NCAA is trying to win a stay of the order decreed by Burciaga, who sided with the suit's football-powerhouse plaintiffs, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia. The schools claimed the NCAA has been selling and regulating broadcast rights that lawfully belong to individual schools, and hence violated antitrust laws.
What the NCAA was doing, Burciaga agreed, amounted to price fixing. "Were it not for the NCAA controls," he wrote, "many more college football games would be televised. The . . . controls . . . make NCAA a classic cartel."
With a stay, the current season would progress as planned, with 28 games split most Saturdays between ABC and CBS, plus Turner's supplementary cable schedule. The question of who owns college football broadcast rights would be settled by the NCAA's certain appeal -- to the Supreme Court, they say, if necessary.
Network spokesmen said further comment would have to await scrutiny of Burciaga's 98-page opinion. The Albuquerque-based judge apparently mailed it three days ago to court authorities in Oklahoma City, where the case was heard, and copies only arrived at most networks' Manhattan headquarters late Wednesday night or yesterday morning.
Meanwhile, rumors took wing.
"We heard someone from Ole Miss called ESPN and said, 'Hey, how about putting on our game with Alabama this Saturday night?' " said a CBS executive.
"We contacted Mississipi ourselves," said Rosa Gatti at ESPN, the all-sports cable network, "because we were taping the game, anyway, for a delayed broadcast and heard that Mississippi had been contacted by other networks. We told them we wanted to be part of any negotiations . . ."
"My sense is that if they're making the contracts null and void then we have the opportunity to do almost anything," said Len Klompus, president of Metrosports, the Rockville-based firm that packages events for radio, television and cable -- just the kind of company that would profit handsomely from the deregulation of college football.
"But I just think right now, people are going to sit tight and see what happens," he said.
Tom Hansen, director of the NCAA's television operations, repeated yesterday for the media much of his testimony before Burciaga in June. He thinks Burciaga has misread congress' attitude toward exempting sports-related television from antitrust considerations. Hansen thinks colleges whose football programs are only adequate will suffer. He thinks broadcast "competition" looks good to schools like Oklahoma right now because at the moment there isn't any competition.
There are some who reduce the suit to a high-stakes power play -- between the 500-member NCAA and the College Football Association, a rival group composed of 60 members and five conferences, all football-strong, that helped fund a large part of the suit.
The CFA, which signed an abortive, renegade TV contract last year with NBC, will now bring up that possibility again to its members, CFA Executive Director Chuck Neinas said yesterday. The CFA's contract did not -- and would not -- exclude the possibility of other TV deals by individual schools or conferences, Neinas said, as the NCAA's contracts have always done.
With the advent of "narrowcasting" -- cable and pay TV, mostly -- Neinas and the CFA think this kind of deal would be more "forward-looking."