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Original Issue

A Supremely Unsettling Smorgasbord

Thanks to the high court we'll get a rich menu of games, but most schools will get less bread

For a vivid glimpse of the new college football world that the Georgia Bulldogs, Oklahoma Sooners and U.S. Supreme Courterbacks have wrought, we take you to, of all places, the Hub. That's right, Boston. Not the most storied of college football cities. However, thanks to the Supreme Court decision that ended the NCAA's control over college football telecasts, it's now a typical all-American viewing center.

In Boston this fall, Harvard physicists will be able to watch Crimson games on PBS; subway alumni in the bars of Southie will be able to choose from among at least seven games between noon and midnight; and Notre Dame grads will be able to second-guess almost every Gerry Faust decision live and in color. In Boston, as elsewhere, this is going to be a dream season for college football fans. Not everyone is going to watch every game, of course, but let's imagine a possible Saturday for a Bostonian.

Say you've just driven out to the inlaws' in Marblehead. No need for small talk. Get right to that tube. At noon, when most schools and conferences have agreed to air their regional packages, you've got your pick of the Ivy League on PBS, a Boston College, Pitt or Syracuse game on another channel and Notre Dame or Penn State on yet a third. Inlaws feed you at 2:45. At three, it's the big national games on the networks. Here comes Keith Jackson on ABC with a game from the CFA, the umbrella group that represents all 105 Division 1-A schools except those in the Big Ten and Pac-10. CBS has those two conferences, and sure enough, Gary Bender is on right now with a Pac-10 game. Whew, 6:30! Hungry! In-laws left dinner for you in the oven. Forget washing the dishes because the big cable game will be on at seven. You have your choice of either another CFA game on ESPN or an SEC matchup on WTBS, the Ted Turner superstation. In-laws in the sack by 10, so leave quietly. Patriots on tomorrow.

One Bostonian who's happier than a clam is Tom Mulvey, president of the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Greater Boston. To see each week's Irish game in the past, he and his 500 dues-paying members had to a) have access to cable and b) hunt through ESPN's rerun listings to learn which day a tape would be rolled. Mulvey now hopes to stage live-TV viewing parties almost every Saturday, complete with hats, T shirts and other shamrocky paraphernalia. "Yes, you could say I'm happy," he says.

Seems like a perfect world, doesn't it? The only problem is that one school in Boston with everything going for it will make far less money from TV this season than last. That school is Boston College, a.k.a. Doug Flutie U. Like the great majority of the Division 1-A schools, BC has abruptly discovered that the Supreme Court decision is no blessing.

BC offers a striking illustration of how a college can be worse off under the new math precisely when it should be wallowing in riches. Flutie, who in three years has brought the Eagles out of the dark ages in football, is a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. Boston College will be on national TV at least three times—Sept. 8 against Alabama (ABC), Sept. 22 against North Carolina (ESPN) and Nov. 23 against Miami (CBS). BC has a good team, a refurbished stadium and fans who are yell-aholics. If the bloom is suddenly off the BC rose with Flutie, what's going to happen once he graduates? "It's a little scary," says athletic director Bill Flynn.

Last season, four regular-season TV appearances earned BC $1,585,000. Only Alabama, Texas and UCLA took in more television bucks. This year Boston College expected to clean up again, but then the Supreme Court acted in response to the action filed by Georgia and Oklahoma, and the game changed. With Big Ten and Pac-10 schools parting ways with the CFA, the TV seller's market became a buyer's market, and the networks held the trump cards. Why should they pay top dollar when they no longer were the exclusive carriers of college football? An anticipated $800,000 payment to BC from CBS for the Miami game became $400,000. An expected $700,000 from ABC for the Alabama game became $250,000. Boston College will receive about $100,000 per game for the three or four games its regional syndicator, Katz Sports, will send around the East. The bottom line? The Eagles will be on television about 50% more often than in 1983 for about 50% less money.

NCAA president John Toner, admittedly not an impartial observer, points out that the Supreme Court decision may lead to a self-perpetuating "superconference" of TV schools that corners the market on money, athletes and national exposure. According to Eagle coach Jack Bicknell, because BC's a new kid on the TV block it will never be one of those schools. "Yes, we have an outstanding quarterback and, yes, there's a lot of interest in us this year, but down the road I just don't know," he says. "I'm more concerned with how many people are in the stands. Yes, we're going to be on TV more, but that to me is not good for the long haul."

So much for the brave new world as seen from Boston. The picture is much the same elsewhere. The regional/network/cable TV dance will go on every Saturday in every corner of the country. It has become abundantly clear that only a handful of schools—most notably a few in the Pac-10 plus Penn State—will take home more TV money this season than last. ABC and CBS, which last year paid a total of $62.5 million for college football and this year are paying $20 million, have won the money game. Oklahoma may have to rent out its stadium to the USFL next spring to raise revenue. But Oklahoma and Georgia won't get any sympathy from their NCAA brethren. Says Washington State coach Jim Walden, who like most college officials believes Georgia and Oklahoma should have left well enough alone, "I can understand glut and greed, but I don't understand stupidity. I think this [lawsuit] will go down in history as one of the stupidest things ever done."

For the viewer, however, it may go down as the biggest bonanza since Congress exempted the NFL from antitrust. Have a nice time at the in-laws'.


This fall's cornucopia includes the CFA on ABC and ESPN, the Pac-10 and Big Ten on CBS, the SEC on WTBS and the Ivies on PBS.


Boston TV will be loaded with the Irish.