JUDGE BURCIAGA GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS WITH COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Forty-eight hours before his school's 23-17 win over Michigan Saturday night in South Bend (page 24), Notre Dame Athletic Director Gene Corrigan received a phone call from Jim Spence, ABC's senior vice-president for sports. ABC was scheduled to telecast the game, paying the teams $550,000 apiece under terms of its four-year contract with the NCAA, and Spence wanted to know if the deal was still on. "Yes, but the price is now $10 million," said Corrigan. Spence shot back, "How about $5 million?"
They were joking, but the situation that inspired the mock renegotiation was no laughing matter to many people. The day before Corrigan's conversation with Spence, U.S. District Judge Juan Burciaga had ruled in a suit in Oklahoma City brought by the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia that the NCAA's control of college football telecasts violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Accordingly, Burciaga struck down the NCAA's four-year $263.5 million deals with ABC and CBS and its $17.5 million two-year pact with Turner Broadcast System.
Last weekend's TV football schedule, including the Notre Dame-Michigan game, came off as planned, while the NCAA sought a judicial stay of Burciaga's ruling pending a planned appeal. The NCAA argued that by allowing schools to chart their own TV destinies, the decision would result in a mad scramble for TV revenues that would make rich schools richer and drive their less glamorous rivals to gridiron extinction. The ruling, said Tom Hansen, the NCAA's TV program director, "could very easily cause the death of college football."
At issue in the suit was the NCAA's role as the bargaining agent for the 505 schools among its 780 members that play football. In that capacity it has sold games in package deals to the networks and parceled out the resulting income. By limiting the appearances of big powers and guaranteeing those of smaller schools, the NCAA sought to protect stadium attendance and maintain competitive balance. These share-the-wealth measures certainly didn't prevent a schism from developing between football haves and have-nots, but the NCAA could argue that its TV policies helped the game as a whole to flourish.
The antitrust suit grew out of a two-year struggle over TV rights between the NCAA and the 60 members of the College Football Association, an organization of the very powerhouses that benefited most from NCAA TV policies. Many CFA members appeared to be mollified when the NCAA gave them a stronger voice in TV policy earlier this year, but not Georgia and Oklahoma, whose suit distressed a vast majority of NCAA members. But as one of the lawyers for the two schools, Andy Coates, argued, "Just because they're the majority doesn't mean they can confiscate property rights."
The go-ahead to combat what Coates called a "tyranny of the majority" was given, in Oklahoma's case, by the university's then president, William Banowsky, who testified during last summer's two-week trial that removal of NCAA controls would allow more teams to appear on local and national TV. Expressing faith that only good things could possibly happen in a marketplace in which schools would be free to bargain individually, Banowsky said, "A rising tide carries all ships."
Burciaga's verdict rivaled in import the suit, also brought on antitrust grounds, that enabled Al Davis to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles over the NFL's objections. Although the NCAA, unlike the NFL, is a nonprofit organization, Burciaga said in his strongly worded 98-page opinion that college football "is a business and it must behave in a businesslike manner." The NCAA had argued that members unhappy with its rules could always quit, but Burciaga said that the NCAA wasn't really a voluntary organization because schools interested in maintaining "major" athletic programs had no choice but to belong. Burciaga called the NCAA "a classic cartel" whose package deal with the networks amounted to price-fixing and whose limitations on appearances "seriously restricted free-market forces." Noting that the NCAA feels no need to exercise control over regular-season college basketball TV rights, which are sold by the conferences or individual schools, Burciaga held that the NCAA could easily adopt a hands-off policy in football, too.
The effect of Burciaga's ruling could be a free-for-all over air time and TV rights. What prevented turmoil from developing right away was the uncertainty caused, in part, by the NCAA's request for a stay. When Leonard Klompus, president of Metrosports, a TV packaging firm in Rockville, Md. that provides taped-delay coverage of Maryland games, approached Terrapin Athletic Director Dick Dull about the possibility of airing last Saturday's Maryland-West Virginia game live, Dull rejected the idea, Klompus said, out of fear that if the NCAA succeeded in overturning the decision, such a telecast might count against the Terps' NCAA allotment of appearances. What happens this week depends on whether and how soon the stay sought by the NCAA is granted. The NCAA's Hansen said that half a dozen or more schools were already angling to get on the air independently. There were also reports that NBC, until now a college football outsider, was interested in telecasting this week's Oklahoma-USC showdown.
Over the long haul, the court decision figured to produce a glut of televised football. Robert Wussler, head of WTBS, Ted Turner's Atlanta superstation, told SI Television Writer Bill Taafe that if Burciaga's order is upheld, "you're going to go from three games on a Saturday to 15 in most areas." Wussler's figure includes local, regional and national telecasts both on cable and over-the-air stations, involving big and small schools.