If you’ve been looking for ways to pass the time on Saturdays, look no more. The college football season has started and our institutions of higher learning are papering the TV walls with their games, offering a buffet whose end is tough to spot.
On September 3, the season’s first weekend date, 28 games were on the television schedule in the Phoenix area, beginning with a 4:30 a.m. contest from Ireland pitting Boston College against Georgia Tech and ending with Northern Arizona versus Arizona State, which started at 8 p.m. and ended around midnight. Last Saturday, the 10th, topped that figure with 40. And this in the out-of-the-way, lower-left-corner on the country, where traffic of all kinds is sparser than normal for our land.
And as the TV pitchmen say, “Wait! There’s more!” The Saturday games were in addition to ones that were aired on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday that first week, and there were three more on Sunday. The sport that used to be reserved for Saturdays so as not to interfere with classroom schedules now has regularly slopped into Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the colleges’ “gentleman’s agreement” to leave Friday nights to the prepsters has been trashed. These days, when a TV network phones an athletics director to inquire if his school’s team could fill an empty air slot, the answer is likely to be “Yes!” before the day or time is revealed. When you’ve in showbiz, the box office (in whatever form) calls the shots.
The subservience of academics to entertainment shows up in other ways. The football season starts before classes begin at many schools, so some freshmen play a game or two before they’ve attended a class, and these same kids can complete a full season of eligibility before they’ve earned a credit. Basketball season starts later, so prodigies at least have to show up for one semester, but many blow off the second before heading for the pros in this one-and-done era.
If you’re older than 40 you can recall when college football was a limited TV treat. The NCAA controlled it and parceled it out stingily, allowing a national game or two of a fall Saturday and/or a few regional games. After several evolutions its policy was governed by a rule that limited any school’s appearances to six in a two-season period.
In 1981, though, the U’s of Oklahoma and Georgia sued, asserting that the practice violated Federal anti-trust laws, and after the case rattled around the courts for three years the Supreme Court agreed with their claim. That opened the box, with consequences that quickly went beyond the confines of the tube. In 2004, 20 years later, Wayne Duke, the longtime Big Ten commissioner and one of the NCAA’s original employees, declared that “the state of college football today is the direct result of that decision, including the arms-race mentality, conference realignments, money pressures and the dilution of the rules and regulations.” Nothing that’s happened in the 12 years since in any way negates that judgement.
Wide-open televising certainly has caused the money side of college sports to mushroom, and with it the stakes for staying on top. Realignment has scrambled traditional conference makeups and put each of the five so-called “Power Conferences” into the TV business directly. Four of them (the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and PAC-12) now have their own television networks and the fifth (the ACC) will go on air with theirs in 2019.
Each of the 14 SEC members nets a reported $37.6 million a year from their league’s network, and the 11 oldest Big Ten schools are right behind at $32 m per (new members Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska have to wait for full shares). And that’s only for the airing of “second-tier” football and basketball games; the best games of all the big conferences draw additional millions from separate rights sales to ESPN, Fox Sports and the on-air networks.
Notre Dame has its own television football contact (for seven games a year, with NBC, worth $15 million a year from 2016 through 2025) and the University of Texas has a TV network devoted exclusively to its various athletic teams that will pay it $300 million over the deal’s 20-year term. Again, that’s just part of the total TV take for both schools.
To fill the air time college-football regular seasons have lengthened, from nine games in the 1950s when I went to college to the present 12 games. Add in conference playoffs and “offshore” games in places like Hawaii and that can grow to 14, and to 15 when the bowls are added.
Ah yes, the bowls. There were nine of them in 1959 and 41 last season, including such classics as the Bahamas Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It used to be that a team needed a winning regular-season record to qualify, but in 2010 a 6-6 mark came to suffice, and in 2012 that was dropped to 5-7. Last season 15 bowl teams had records of 6-6 or worse. Of necessity, that figure will grow if (when) more bowls are approved. Ireland, Australia and Dubai (?!) all have bids to add them.
What does it add up to? According to USA Today, 24 schools had athletics revenues that topped $100 million in 2014-15, led by Texas A & M’s $192 million. The Aggies’ ranking is a one-shot, buoyed by the $54 million it raised to build a new football stadium, but numbers 2 through 5 on the list (Texas at $183 m, Ohio State at $167 m. Michigan at $152 m and Alabama at $148m) are hardy perennials that needed no special boosts. Notre Dame also is up there, although the newspaper included only public u’s in its surveys.
With stakes that high the rewards for cheating are obvious, and the phone-book-sized NCAA rule book stands as evidence that the sports big-timers don’t trust one another. They’re all part of the same hypocrisy, and know it. You should, too.