College football spent two years on ABC, two on CBS, two on NBC and then returned to ABC in 1966. In the interim, however, pro football rose to new peaks and the men of the NCAA were becoming increasingly sensitive on the subject. In 1965 there was deep suspicion that the NCAA curtly rejected renewal of an NBC contract simply because that network had taken up with the AFL. That year, strangely, even though NBC had fully expected to continue its NCAA association, there was no open bidding at all, no negotiating and no serious talks between the NCAA and NBC over contract renewals. Suddenly NBC received a terse two-line telegram from the NCAA announcing that the college football package would henceforth be televised by ABC.
"We were apoplectic" says NBC's Lindemann. "Legally they didn't have to give us a shot at it, but morally they sure had an obligation." Lindemann fired off a telegram of outrage to Asa Bushnell in which he attacked the NCAA for its "shoddy treatment" and for ignoring "any spirit of fairness" by not telling NBC that its AFL affiliation had disqualified it from bidding for NCAA rights. In parting, Lindemann accused the NCAA leadership of being "a discredit to amateur athletics" and of showing "exceedingly poor business judgment." He released the whole seething missive to the press.
But all that was just stomping on sour grapes. ABC had college football for four years, and NBC was left with its spent wrath and the AFL. Time passes, the world turns. Now it is 1970, and how has everyone fared in the interim? Prized though the NCAA package was, ABC had trouble selling advertising around it during the 1968 season and network executives let it be known that they took a $1.8 million bath for the year. The NCAA, through its doughty executive director, Walter Byers, let it be known in turn that it did not believe a word of this. In the spring of 1969 renegotiation began on a contract for the 1970 and '71 seasons. ABC had an option to renew, but a clause stated that if the network and the NCAA could not agree on terms after 45 days, the NCAA's television committee would lay down a final set of specific conditions. Then if ABC did not meet those terms, the NCAA could offer the TV rights to college football to any other network that was willing to meet the precise terms offered ABC.
Considering its proclaimed 1968 losses, ABC was not interested in going much above $11 million a year in its renewal. The NCAA asked $13 million. ABC might have agreed to that figure if the NCAA had shown some interest in one of television's most tempting dreams: a college championship playoff tournament between the nation's best teams. As it has for years, the NCAA squelched the idea. Bargaining between the parties remained deadlocked. Weeks passed and the deadline for renewal was nearing when Roone Arledge suddenly announced that ABC had bought a piece of pro football with a Monday-night package in 1970.
How would the supersensitive NCAA react to sharing a network with the pros? Wouldn't this be construed as heresy? Already there had been reports that the NCAA's 13-member TV committee had come within a field goal of passing a motion that would disallow any network from having college football if it also had pro football. The NCAA's Walter Byers primly denied such stories. "We have lived with pro ball in the past. We see no reason to panic now. We would never think of asking that a clause be inserted in our television contract forbidding the network from carrying pro games. Whoever thought up that idea ought to go back to the think tank."
The deadline was crushing in on ABC and there was no agreement in sight. The NCAA was adamant in its demands, and the two parties still were $1 million a year apart. Now there occurred one of those grand, strategic tiltings of terrain that make it so hard to keep track of TV-sport alliances. As with most dealings of this nature, the shiftings were born in expedience and bred in a desire for profits, but even with that the relationship was startling. NBC—which had been summarily excommunicated a mere four years earlier—was now palsy-walsy again with the NCAA. Yes, that amazing group of guys at the NCAA had, it appeared, lifted their censure. Bygones were to be bygones. Forgiveness was in the air. Well aware of the NCAA's instinctive, if unofficial, distaste for sharing a network with pro football, NBC executives sensed that perhaps the time was ripe to repent, cast away their association with the AFL and offer themselves, newly cleansed, for NCAA absolution. Their initial contacts with the NCAA were met with warmth, and soon NBC was taking a profound interest in the conditions that the NCAA would demand of ABC once the 45-day deadline had expired.
Since it was commonly believed that Roone Arledge would not pay more than $11 million a year and since his network was already locked into a pro football contract for 1970 (which NBC was not), it would have been greatly to NBC's advantage if the NCAA's negotiators included two particular conditions in their final terms: 1) a clause proscribing any network from carrying both college and pro football games, and 2) a clause demanding a mildly exorbitant amount of money—say, $12 million or more a year. Given those conditions, ABC would fall by the wayside, NBC would renounce the AFL, put up the ransom money as demanded and, having met all requirements, would live forever after in benign bliss with Walter Byers and simon-pure amateur sport.
A lovely dream. The powers of the NCAA did indeed set a $12 million figure for the contract, but they could not find it in themselves to write in a clause outlawing pro football—their lawyers were nervous about restraint of trade and all that. This came as a cruel blow to the anxious suitors at NBC when, at a very private meeting in early June, they were shown the final terms of the demands to ABC. Deeply saddened, an NBC man groaned to Walter Byers, "My God, Walter, they're going to accept this." To which Walter Byers replied confidently: "No, they won't."
While the NCAA-ABC negotiations were in limbo, Walter Byers had made this comment in reply to a question: "Based on my recent experiences in connection with the negotiations for the 1970-71 telecasts, I would say that college football is one of the most desirable single sports packages in American television. Indications now are that our return from the football package will be higher than it has been for the last two years. We will receive more money because we are being offered more, not because we are putting a gun at someone's head."
When the NCAA letter of terms and conditions arrived at ABC, Roone Arledge was predictably appalled at the amount of money demanded. The NCAA had not put a gun to his head, but a cannon. Soon word spread to key owners of the network's affiliated stations that Arledge had decided he could not go much above $11 million to get college football, that the package would be lost. But some affiliates had been less than delighted by ABC's Monday-night pro football deal, and now they insisted that the network stick with college football on Saturdays—or else. It took some desperate wheeling and dealing, but eventually Arledge managed an almost unprecedented arrangement with the stations: they would agree to cut back their compensations (paid by a network to stations for running network programming) on NCAA telecasts. Then the network would have a chance to break even at $12 million. With that done, ABC accepted the NCAA terms. NBC was done in again.