There will be a "pretrial conference" here this morning that, if the Federal Trade Commission has its way, sets in motion a process that forever will change the way college football is televised.
At issue is the contract ABC and ESPN (both owned by Capital Cities) have with the College Football Association, which represents the television interests of 63 top football-playing schools. The five-year, $175 million deal kicks in next season.
The FTC is crying antitrust. ABC and the CFA say no way, adding that the FTC doesn't even have jurisdiction.
All parties agree the contract could run its course before the legal process does. Background: In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled the NCAA exercised a monopoly on college football TV rights, violating antitrust laws. The CFA was formed to become the negotiator for a select group of NCAA schools.
"From our position," said FTC attorney Stephen Riddell, "the agreement between the CFA and Capital Cities has the same anticompetitive effects as when the NCAA was issuing marketing rights -- perhaps not as extreme. The NCAA was a monopoly, the CFA certainly is not. But the deal restricts college football telecasts, drives up rights fees and limits viewer choice. The agreements are similar."
ABC wonders why the FTC did not go after the current CFA contract with CBS. After all, ABC says, its new agreement will result in more TV games than there are now, including the network's continuing Big Ten/Pac-10 package.
"The FTC is a complex bureaucracy," Riddell said. "Investigations are quite lengthy. This one began in October 1988."
Upon completion of the investigation, the decision to proceed rested with the five FTC commissioners (the Commission), who voted, 4-1, to do so. Agreement: ABC, then ESPN, pick which games they will show each week. After that, syndicators, superstations and schools can move in to make deals, albeit with limitations.
Said CFA attorney Clyde Muchmore: "We think we get the most games on and have the smallest number of limitations the network can have and still go sell games to Chevrolet."
Key limitation: Games that syndicators and superstations show must begin by 12:10 local time. Maryland-Virginia would have to start no later than 12:10, but so would BYU at San Diego State -- even though it would be seen at 3:10 here, opposite an ABC game. Competition, ABC and the CFA say; not enough, the FTC says.
If syndicators don't pick up a game, the two schools involved can sell TV rights to their home markets only. Even less competition, says the FTC.
Further, games can be on pay-per-view any time (LSU home games are on PPV). Hardly anything, the FTC says. Jurisdiction: "The CFA is a nonprofit corporation and the FTC does not have jurisdiction over nonprofit corporations," Muchmore said.
Muchmore continued, CFA members -- universities -- in turn are nonprofit entities.
"Open and shut," said Muchmore. "They don't have jurisdiction and we want that addressed" today. Process: It will begin before James P. Timony, an FTC administrative law judge.
Normally in these instances, pretrial mumbo jumbo fills the air; the trial is set for May 13. But first the CFA will want a ruling on jurisdiction, hoping to have the case tossed out.
"Once we get past jurisdiction, they have to lose," said Riddell, adding he hardly sees jurisdiction as a serious issue.
If Timony rules in favor of the FTC, figure it's September-October, then the appeals can start. Of course, the appeals process seemingly is endless. The first appeal is to the Commission. That doesn't bode well for the CFA, since that five-member panel voted against the CFA in the first place -- although one of the four favoring the action has since left, Riddell said.
After that, it is off to the federal courts, perhaps the Supreme Court, where, in effect, this whole thing started back in '84 with the NCAA.
Muchmore said: "Historically, the courts have needed to step in."
And when the courts step in, time all but stands still. It may change things forever, if it doesn't take forever to change.
On Oct. 28, WBAL-TV-11, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore, left the Eagles-Cowboys game toward the end to switch to Redskins-Giants. Based on information from the NFL, it was reported Oct. 30 ("Into Thin Air Went Eagles' Winning TD") that Channel 11 was not contractually bound to switch. It was.