Sports History Files: College football’s eternal seduction

In his informative, well-researched history of college football on television that was published nearly a decade ago, Alabama sportswriter Keith Dunnavant entitled his book “The 50 Year Seduction.”

The uneasy alliance between television networks and college football powerhouse schools began more or less around 1950, until the NCAA, fearing money losses at the gate, supressed greater exposure as long as it could.

50 Year SeductionThen, in 1984, the NCAA, sued by some of its member institutions over football contracts, was ruled a cartel by the U.S. Supreme Court. The free-wheeling floodgates soon opened for the kinds of conference and individual school contracts that were attempted at the outset, and that proliferate now.

At the end of a post about all this in January, I placed these historical trends against contemporary realignment developments, suggesting that the only thing that’s really changed are the names of some of the schools:

” . . . 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.”

That the name of Louisville comes up at all in a conversation about college football is the direct result of television’s increasingly dominant hand in the direction of the sport, as The New York Times points out today. The second segment of a three-part series on ESPN‘s influence on college football illustrates that a school once synonymous with its men’s basketball program has become enriched commercially and nationally competitive across a broad range of sports by raising its profile in the sport that matters the most to fans, advertisers and TV networks.

This was done at the behest of then-Louisville president John Shumaker, and by seizing on the opportunity to play midweek football, a nationally televised window ESPN gives to lower-profile programs:

The key to the whole thing was football. In the economics of big-time college athletics, football is the alpha and the omega — generally by far the most profitable sport, because of the size of the crowds, the sponsorships and the lucrative television agreements. Perhaps two dozen elite universities make enough money from football, and to a lesser degree basketball, to subsidize their entire athletic departments. What Louisville had to do first, Mr. Shumaker decided, was replace the “not very attractive” and decidedly second-tier Cardinal Stadium, which opened in 1957, just after the graduation of Johnny Unitas, Louisville’s greatest football star.

The rest has been an unqualified success, although the story contains the usual threads of anxiety from academics about what the university has sacrificed in order to become an athletic behemoth.

In many ways, the saga of Louisville’s rise, expertly shepherded by athletic director Tom Jurich, offers a formula that his peers undoubtedly have heeded at universities with similar ambitions.

The larger context of all this is the scope of the Times series, which began on Sunday featuring how a 35-year-old USC graduate with a penchant for scheduling and spreadsheets has so many of college football’s elite at his beck and call. Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN‘s senior vice president for college football programming and acquisitions, is profiled as the ultimate maestro in how the nation’s second-most commercially successful sport is presented on its biggest televised stage.

ESPN‘s ability to get the major powers of college football to bend to its wishes is remarkable. “It works very well for us now that we’re used to it,” the Times quotes Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs as saying in reference to sudden schedule changes that the Worldwide Leader easily commands.

Now that we’re used to it.

This has gone far beyond the wooing stage, as Times writers Richard Sandomir, Steve Eder and James Andrew Miller explain right after that:

Underscoring ESPN’s special relationship with college football is the fact that it created and owns the software used for scheduling games. The online portal, known as the Pigskin Access Scheduling System, or PASS, is now used by virtually all conferences and colleges, as well as competing networks. Generally, the colleges work together to set up nonconference matchups, but sometimes they reach out to ESPN for a suggestion, or even to play matchmaker.

In January, Bob Arkeilpane, the deputy athletic director at Cincinnati, sent an e-mail to an ESPN executive, Dave Brown. Mr. Arkeilpane explained in the message, which was obtained by The Times, that Cincinnati would be opening a new premium seating area and press box in 2015 and needed a top-tier opponent.

Mr. Brown, who is well known for his thick Rolodex, wrote back that morning, “Will do — let me look and see what’s out there for ’15.”

Instead of calling around other athletic departments for an opponent, this administrator contacted ESPN. This is no mere seduction, and calling it a “special relationship” is to invoke a phrase describing the United States’ dealings with the United Kingdom. We all know who the boss is there.

But it also aptly describes who calls the shots in college football. This is outright ownership, with ESPN as more than exposure-granting overlord and friendly schedule assistant. That’s what is ultimately different about televised college football now, compared to the advent of the free-for-all age of the early 1980s, when university presidents sought to escape the clutches of NCAA control and negotiate their own contracts.

And so they have, with riches for so many more schools and conferences. But they also have bartered themselves to an institution that enjoys the same kind of power over them as the NCAA, in what is nominally a voluntary, mutually exclusive business relationship.

Keep that in mind when the college football season starts on Thursday night, with 10 of the 17 games available on some form of ESPN. And if you still can’t wait until Saturday after all that, half of the eight games on Friday — when high school games are going on — also carry an ESPN imprint.

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