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All Shook Up
William F. Reed
August 26, 1991
Seismic shifts are altering the sport's landscape
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August 26, 1991

All Shook Up

Seismic shifts are altering the sport's landscape

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•Beginning this season and continuing through 1995, ABC will have first call on televising everything in the regular season except the Notre Dame home games that will be shown on NBC. That's because in January 1990 ABC was able to add the CFA television package to the Big Ten-Pac-10 package that it already owned. This season the network has scheduled 24 "windows" for college football. About half will be national telecasts, and the rest will be regional. All told, 56 or 57 games will be shown on ABC this fall.

This will be a crucial time for assessing college football's TV future. The most important question is whether in 1995, at the end of the current CFA contract—which recently survived an antitrust challenge from the Federal Trade Commission—the conferences will elect to continue working within the CFA or will break away to cut their own deals, as Notre Dame did with NBC. "That's a possibility," says the CFA's Neinas, "but I think all of our 66 members are happy with the TV package." The key player is the newly constituted SEC, which, because its schools have little or no direct competition from pro franchises, now has enough exclusive TV markets to go off on its own.

"I think this is the last TV contract the CFA will have," says Texas A&M athletic director John David Crow. "It'll serve no purpose after the '94 or '95 season. When the SEC goes on its own, it'll fall apart—and the SEC was almost gone the last time [in 1989]. To keep them, the CFA had to guarantee them as much money as they would have gotten on their own and a certain percentage of all the ABC exposures. The only way the CFA will stay in existence is if the rest of us give in and give the SEC more and more of the pie."

But ABC vice-president David Downs takes a different view. "There are not too many conferences that can stand on their own right now," he says. "We're hoping that, by the end of the contract, the conferences will realize that we've put on a tremendous college football package, and that we've helped increase the popularity of college football."

Even so, conferences will use the next five years to test the waters about cutting their own deals, as they have in college basketball. For example, the Big East, centered in the heavily populated East, may become as strong and independent as the SEC.

"TV already is playing a big role for us [in basketball]," says Miami's Wahl. "No conference has put together a better package than the Big East TV network. All that money will go to the conference to help the conference market itself better. At some point it might be to our advantage to package football and basketball together."

•The one thing all the moving and shaking won't provide, at least for now, is what college fans say they want the most—a postseason playoff to determine a national champion. The university presidents are opposed to it on the grounds that it would lengthen the season and impose even more of a hardship on the athletes, and these days the trend is toward the presidents' getting what they want. Says one athletic director, who asked not to be identified, "We've got a large group of presidents who say they're concerned about the perceptions of college football, and yet they talk out of both sides of their mouths."

A case in point is the SEC. With the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, the presidents approved a plan to split the conference into two six-team divisions and have a postseason playoff to determine the league champion and Sugar Bowl representative. "We've had pretty tough league schedules the last few years," says Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, "but now we're going to have one more [regular-season] league game and another one after that to go to the Sugar Bowl. I'm not excited about that, but that's what the higher-ups have decided." If the SEC is successful, look for the other conferences to follow suit.

Interestingly, the college game eventually may be forced into some kind of a national playoff to maintain a competitive position against the NFL. "As the NFL enlarges itself and takes up more dates, it's a monstrous threat to college football," Tranghese says. "If they're going to continue doing that, a playoff could be our only tool to hold our own."

Texas A&M's Crow doesn't disagree, but he also raises some important points. "That puts you back to asking about what college football should be," he says. "Are we intercollegiate athletics or semipro? Do we really want to compete with the NFL for the TV dollar and the commercial dollar? On the one hand we're supposed to highlight the university and be a rallying point for students. But on the other we have to look at it from a business standpoint, dealing with dollars and cents and TV. I'm not sure where we are, to tell you the truth."

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