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Original Issue

ABC's marriage to the NCAA is showing strong symptoms of the seven-year itch

When Roone Arledge of ABC Sports sits down with the television brains of the NCAA in Kansas City shortly, confronting them will be the sort of scenario favored by As The World Turns or Dear Abby. The one that asks the question, can this marriage be saved?

The marriage in doubt is the six-year-old liaison between ABC and the NCAA for the rights to carry college football on television. The current two-year contract expires at the end of this season, and both sides want very much to come in out of the cold. Arledge most of all.

He enters the talks gingerly, shall we say? College football telecasts cost the network $12 million this season, and they have been a distinct loss leader. Several unsold minutes of commercial time will probably have to be discounted for less than the $52,000 rate-card price, which—added to a $4.5 million loss in 1970—makes the prospect for renewal on the same terms practically nil. Strengthening Arledge's bargaining hand is the fact that ABC's Monday night pro football has been such a smash. In other words, is this marriage worth saving?

The NCAA seems ready to sweeten the package, which is now so encumbered with self-protective clauses that nobody is happy with it. For a while the NCAA was even considering another postseason game—call it the Poll Bowl—which would have matched up two top-rated (and available) teams on the second Saturday of December on national television. But the college football "bowl lobby," made up of bowl committees and conferences, raised such vocal Cain at this prospect that the NCAA Council last week killed the plan, at least for this negotiation. The NCAA has in mind some other bargaining points, including an additional Saturday game and a handful of holiday specials. These would include national games on Labor Day, Veterans Day and a second regional Thanksgiving Day game. These dates would not count against a school's quota of no more than three TV appearances in any two-year period. Equally important, the NCAA would permit ABC to select the last nine dates only 12 days ahead of kickoff, instead of the present 10 months.

One NCAA spokesman feels confident that the colleges will get $13 million—if not from ABC, then from one of the other networks. The collegians feel their package has several advantages over the NFL contract. For one thing, they say, the NCAA contest is the only game in town on Saturdays, while the pros divide their Sunday audiences three or four ways. Their argument would ring truer if ABC were unable to cite those discounted ad spots.