A freer market for televised college games? Football's other controversy

At first it looked as if fans of TV football were getting tackled from both sides.

First, millions decided to endure rerun movies and mow the lawn again while they waited for the professional football strike to end.

Then, the future of televised college football got tossed up for grabs by a federal district court judge in Oklahoma who called a penalty on the National Collegiate Athletic Association's exclusive control of lucrative TV contracts. The suit against the NCAA was brought by the University of Oklahoma board of regents and the athletic association of the University of Georgia.

Following that decision, the ''deregulation'' of college football was starting to look like a free-for-all. At stake: more than $280 million in contracts with television networks over the next few years and possibly the future of college and high-school football, as the NCAA tells it.

The NCAA appealed the ruling to the US court of appeals in Denver. On Sept. 22, that panel threw a block on the lower court's ruling, essentially allowing the NCAA to retain control over TV football contracts until its appeal can be heard in mid-November - just as football season ends.

The original ruling accused the NCAA of monopolizing and therefore stifling the competitive growth of televised college football by wielding ''almost absolute control over the supply of college football.'' It also found the multi-million dollar TV contracts in violation of federal antitrust laws and abruptly cancelled them. This threw into question what games would be televised this year.

The networks lost no time. ABC, CBS, and the cabled Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) scrambled to strike individual deals with schools to air games. Under the ruling, each school could negotiate instead of funneling all televised college football games through a NCAA-network contract.

Independent broadcasters also rushed to fill the TV football vacuum. Before the appeals court in Denver had time to block the earlier ruling, giving the NCAA a temporary victory, Oklahoma City TV station KOCO had snared the Sept. 25 face-off between Oklahoma and the University of Southern California, outbidding NBC. The station agreed to pay $250,000 to the schools. KOCO linked up with the national advertising sales firm, Katz Communications, to pull together a loosely formed independent network to carry the game across the country - and sold out the commercial spots.

The prospect of televising the weekend game vanished with the court ruling. In a further development, the networks are negotiating with various schools through the NCAA for Sunday games to fill the void left by the NFL strike.

Jim Schaffer of the NCAA says the original ruling would change the face of college football. ''A lot of protective measures were built in (the NCAA control of broadcast rights) . . . and this will hurt some small schools,'' he says. NCAA rules limit the number of games a school can have broadcast in a season.

''Now you could have a couple of teams dominating TV appearances,'' he says. ''All the big football schools would get all the TV deals.''

The NCAA, in its plea for the temporary reprieve, warned not only of danger to college football, but to other college sports that are often financed by the income earned from televised football. The NCAA also predicted harm to high school football, which is now protected by NCAA rules that protect attendence at Friday night high school games by prohibiting the broadcast of college games then.

However, in the original ruling on the case, Judge Juan Burciaga stated that ''the evidence is clear that local broadcasts of college football would occur far more frequently were it not for the NCAA controls. . . .''

Schaffer agrees that if Judge Burciaga's ruling is upheld, TV viewers will probably have a lot more college games to choose from, because there will likely be more local and independent coverage of local teams.

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