The rogue origins of college football’s television odyssey

To discover one of the first institutions of higher learning to strike an entrepreneurial path in the burgeoning post-World War II business of college football, you must travel to an unlikely destination.

It is a place not to be found in the sleepy villages of the Deep South, or on the hearty land-grant behemoths of the Midwest, or amid the sun-splashed Italianate and Romanesque buildings of southern California campuses.

Your journey would take you instead to an Ivy League school immersed in the vibrancy of urban and highbrow intellectual life and that still boasts the Palestra, an iconic basketball cathedral, and the oldest active college football stadium in the nation.

Picture 2For it was in 1950 that the University of Pennsylvania, located near the heart of Philadelphia, sold the rights to its home football games to the upstart American Broadcasting Company.

The Penn Quakers were among the best teams in the country at the time, ranked in the Top 20, routinely drawing 60,000 and more at Franklin Field, and enjoying the modest fruits of a local television arrangement.

For most of the leaders of organized sports — from college athletic directors to Major League Baseball owners — ticket sales were the lifeblood of their enterprises, and they were growing fiercely protective of their gates.

That’s because by 1950 more than 9 million televisions were owned by Americans, up sharply from the 7,000 sets sold in 1947, and the various networks were vying for sports programming to fill their airwaves.

As he became the Penn president, perpetual Republican presidential candidate Harold Stassen was eager for his football team to aspire to a larger public profile. He saw nationally televised games as means to this end.

The leaders of other schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association did not, and in early 1951 NCAA members voted overwhelmingly to sharply curtail the television exposure of college football.

This ban also affected powerhouse teams at Georgia Tech and Notre Dame, which like Penn pioneered college football at the dawn of the television age.

But Stassen forged ahead, ordering his athletic director to work out terms of a $180,000 deal with ABC for the 1951 season. It took all of one day for the NCAA to declare Penn a member “not of good standing.”

Under NCAA pressure, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton and Dartmouth vowed to cancel games against Penn if its Ivy League rival insisted on its television course. Penn backed down, and the largely toothless NCAA gained some real power for the first time.

This story constitutes the opening pages of “The Fifty-Year Seduction,” Alabama sportswriter Keith Dunnavant’s 2004 history of televised college football and an authoritative account of the growth of big-time college athletics.

In the wake of Penn’s retreat, Notre Dame flirted with, but eventually abandoned, the idea of challenging the NCAA, which would soon add enforcement authority under the domineering leadership of executive director Walter Byers.

In a rare bit of sharp editorializing, Dunnavant strongly sympathized with those schools looking out for their own interests:

“By attempting to coerce Penn to surrender its television property, the NCAA and the four Ivy League schools crossed a line. It was a despicable, shameful act of thuggery, a strong-arm tactic worthy of back alley hoodlums and pulp fiction gangsters.

. . . . . .

“It was the sports equivalent of a third-world dictator nationalizing a foreign corporation’s assets, and such socialistic robbery violated the foundations of American justice and economic liberty.”

Such fierce rhetoric, usually coming from the solons of college football, is laced through Dunnavant’s book, peaking with the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision to strip the NCAA of its chokehold on college football television contracts and continuing through the start of the Bowl Championship Series era in the late 1990s.

These views reflect the perspective of the university presidents and athletic directors who morphed into businessmen as the TV deals fattened, and as the stadium crowds on Saturday afternoons surged.

Although the protectionists’ fears may have been reduced to rubble as the game became awash in more money than ever before, reformers, women’s sports activists and those alarmed by the commercialization of college athletics grew more concerned.

These are tensions that remain today, with conferences purloining individual schools amid a rollicking wave of realignment and a four-team college football playoff replacing the current BCS format in 2014.

While many bemoan the confounding geography of what’s transpiring today, Dunnavant writes of an “airplane conference” floated in the late 1950s that would have included the defiant trio of Notre Dame, Penn and Georgia Tech, along with Penn State, the military academies and USC, UCLA, Cal, Washington and Stanford of the temporarily-disbanded Pac 8.

It’s tempting to think that college football is in unprecedented times, and it is, in terms of the amount of money that’s being pursued. There are plenty of reasons to fret about what continued shuffling will mean not only for the sport, but other men’s and women’s offerings as well.

But while Penn may have been rebuffed in its attempt to go rogue, the most recent conference jumps by Maryland, Rutgers and Louisville illustrate that far from disrupting the order of things, those moves symbolize more than six decades of constant restlessness at the root of post-war college football.

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