Quite coincidentally, while these NCAA negotiations were under way, Roone Arledge sat down one night in a hotel suite in Houston and unloaded a perceptive analysis of what his world was coming to:
"It's no fun anymore. The negotiations are so damned sensitive, so damned bitter. It seems everybody's out for the jugular vein. It's gotten so the biggest status symbol in sport is how high your TV dollar is. It doesn't matter how good the event itself is, or how it is presented, just so long as TV paid top dollar for the show. Statesmen don't exist in sports. The guys who represent amateur associations or committees want nothing so much as to go back to the boys at home and make a speech saying, 'Hey, fell as, look how we held up TV this time. Look at all the money we brought home with us.' Sure, I suppose it's a lot easier to make a speech like that than to stand up and explain that they got a few bucks less, but that they also got fewer commercials in the games. It is easier to explain a big buck than to say you won a point of principle, I guess."
There is some truth in what Arledge says, for there are times when the game does seem secondary to the receipts. Perhaps there are circumstances when the very conjunction of pure sport and corporate profit is anathema, an untenable mixture in which one is doomed to failure—or distortion—by its very contact with the other.
But there is also more than a modicum of media self-serving in Arledge's feelings, for TV executives do dearly love to blame the raging cost of TV sport on administrators and entrepreneurs who sell the rights at astronomical rates, rather than on themselves for willingly paying absurd prices. The environment in which inflation thrives has been created in large part by the networks. Because they are barred—understandably—by antitrust laws from cooperative internetwork discussions or manipulation about the price of rights to specific events, network sport executives resort to a very expensive form of blindman's buff in order to grope to some ground on which to base a bid. This, plus an instinctive distrust of their competitors, has led to some extremely high bids. Last year the total network investment in sports events was $150 million. And only ABC, of the major networks, even claims to make a profit on sport.
The others speak reverently of public service and are more or less reduced to buying and programming sport simply to maintain "prestige." One irony of this is that such "prestige" is primarily an insider's currency, valuable largely within a smattering of people—the lords of Madison Avenue, affiliated station owners, sponsors, very large stockholders and various stars in the network presidential galaxy. You can bet your set that not 5% of televiewers can tell you which network carries which programs, be it Cronkite, Disney or Super Bowl.
The ranking seeker of prestige today is ABC. Under Arledge, ABC has recently proved to be as shrewd and tough as they come at TV's great game. Though he is pink and portly and very personable, and though he once won prizes for production of a bit of electronic fudge called Hi Mom, do not be misled by Roone Arledge. He lives by the motto of his mentor, Tom Moore: Anything goes in television sport.
"Roone is a nice guy, but he can be so cunning," says CBS's Bill MacPhail. "We all go to each other's events. I go to the Series, Carl goes to the Derby, Roone goes to the Masters, but Arledge doesn't have a sense of propriety sometimes. I mean, he's at the Derby and I look up and what do I see? Arledge having lunch with Wathen Knebelkamp, the president of Churchill Downs. For all I know, Roone is trying to steal the Kentucky Derby from me right before my eyes!"
Well, it is probable that Roone is trying to steal the Derby, or at least borrow it for a while, for, as he says, "If we want an event, we go after it with all we have. We romanced the hell out of the Rose Bowl people; we had Lathrop Leishman [Rose Bowl chairman] out playing golf with Byron Nelson. We gave him the works, but he wouldn't leave NBC."
ABC is openly wooing the Orange Bowl (so far to no avail), and it won the Sugar Bowl and the East-West Game away from NBC. For years ABC has tried to convince canny Cliff Roberts that he is being underpaid by CBS for the Masters—that ABC would offer more. But traditionalist Roberts remains a CBS fancier, partly because Masters officials have no interest in increasing the tournament's income.
Another major event that has sold rights for less than it could get is the U.S. Open, which is on ABC. Arledge speaks with grand affection of the U.S. Open: "The USGA said it would keep the price for the Open the same as it had been if we promised to cut the number of commercials in the telecast. We did, and everybody benefited, especially a few million golf fans. That is the kind of statesmanship I wish there were more of in sport."