No one really knows what will happen to college football on television this year, following last week's decision by a U.S. appeals court to affirm an 8-month-old ruling that the NCAA's four-year, $281-million network television contract is invalid, a violation of antitrust law.
However, the dominant feeling seems to be: not much. Not this season. To tear up everything now, after ABC and CBS have set much of their '83 schedules and sold most of their commercials, would surely mean chaos.
Chaos, translated: the scramble for television money, the distribution of which is the essence of this whole affair.
The NCAA announced yesterday it will seek a rehearing of the case before the entire eight-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel, three members of which accounted for last week's 2-1 decision. The NCAA's petition, which it must file by Thursday, will request the appeals court to "clarify the terms by which the NCAA might administer a television plan . . . without antitrust difficulties."
The action most likely spells the continuation of the status quo for the coming season; we'll probably wait until 1984 for order to become chaos--or for chaos to become order, depending on who's talking. Most who are awaiting the final legal outcome of the suit believe chaos will become order, but not before 1984.
Most say that a digestible schedule of national games (over the networks) and regional contests (through conference or independent-school packages, a la college basketball) can be worked out by then. If the schools stick together.
Big if. Last September, Federal Judge Juan Burciaga ruled in favor of the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia, agreeing that the NCAA's TV policies amounted to a price-fixing, competition-restricting cartel. Oklahoma immediately went out and sold the rights to its next game against Southern Cal to an ad hoc, 100-station network whipped together by Katz Sports, a New York-based syndicator.
Katz had no trouble finding stations to carry the game, or advertisers to underwrite it. Had Burciaga's ruling not been stayed pending appeal, Katz surely would have found the people to watch it.
As if to solidify its image as a catalyst in the soon-to-be changing college football arena, Katz also paid $1.2 million for a preseason game between Penn State and Nebraska on Aug. 29. This "Kickoff Classic" is already booked on 114 stations across the country, says Katz Sports President Fred Botwinik.
For now, though, schools, networks and syndicators alike seem to be awaiting resolution of the NCAA's next step.
Last week, the appeals panel remanded the case back to Burciaga's court, primarily because the lower court's ruling seemed overly broad. It possibly could leave the NCAA legally powerless to use television-appearance sanctions to enforce non-TV-related recruitment violations, or to dispense Division I-AA, Division II or Division III games over the air. In the meantime, most parties are pretending the original stay is still in effect--though the appeals court, oddly, didn't address it--and the NCAA's current TV plan is still in force.
"If the status quo is maintained long enough this year (through legal means), the NCAA's TV package likely will remain intact this fall," said Philip Hochberg, counsel to the College Football Association, whose membership of 62 college football powers (except 20 schools in the Big Ten and Pac-10) two years ago devised a maverick TV deal with NBC, a deal later shouted down by the NCAA. The CFA, supporters of members Oklahoma and Georgia throughout the suit, is advising its members to act as if the NCAA contract is still in effect, Hochberg said.
Of course, the CFA has been working since last year on an alternate TV plan that includes late afternoon-prime time Saturday doubleheaders, while giving its members the right to negotiate early-afternoon TV contracts by themselves. The NCAA's television committee has investigated a similar, nonexclusive plan. Just in case.
CBS expects to put on its college schedule this fall as planned. "Frankly, I think the current plan will remain in effect," said Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports. As to the reports that CBS might reduce its schedule of regional telecasts this fall, thus cutting its costs in the second year of what most believe is an ill-fated four-year pact, Pilson said: "I don't see us doing that."
Donn Bernstein, college football coordinator at ABC Sports, is keeping an eye on the schedule of games ABC plans to telecast this fall, and a finger pointed in the direction of the colleges. "They're the ones that will decide this," he said. "We're just consumers, we're just out there shopping along with everyone else. We would very much like to be a part of college football, but to what extent is purely up to the schools."