Texas Perspectives

Sixty-Five Years Later, Television is the Funding Source of College Football

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The first live coast-to-coast television broadcast of a sports event occurred 65 years on Sept. 29. The television industry and college football have grown exponentially and together ever since. Is this a good thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

On Sept. 29, 1951, Duke University defeated the University of Pittsburgh on the gridiron at Pitt Stadium, 19-14 before a live, NBC audience. Shortly after the Pitt-Duke game, the first live (but local) color broadcast of a football game occurred and again it was a college game between the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania. Clearly, 1951 was an important year for television and sports.
 
This year, on the first weekend of college football, there were 133 college football games broadcast on TV or streamed online stretched across five days including a rare Sunday night college football broadcast.

Why has college football and TV had such explosive growth? In a word: Money.

Television has provided college football with tremendous exposure, which, in turn, fueled interest that created demand for more college football. It was demand that television, through the creation of networks such ESPN, was happy to meet with an increasing number of broadcasts available every night of the week.

The initial concern that this was too much quickly gave way to the belief that 24/7 was not enough. Satellite broadcasts and cable expanded dramatically and in the process helped to spawn scores of additional networks that were interested in sports generally and, specifically, college football. The 1984 court decision, NCAA vs The Board of Regents for the University of Oklahoma, gave colleges the right to sell their TV rights to the highest bidder, and television networks quickly doubled down on college football.

This exposure has changed the game. TV money has fueled new stadiums and the growth of coaching staffs, coaching salaries and athletic training facilities. This probably will not change in the future.

The five top conferences have either a dedicated conference network or a lucrative rights deal with one or more networks. The result is a payment of $25 million or more to each school annually. This money has fueled concerns about whether student athletes should be paid. After all, if universities + student athletes = TV money, why not share? 

Long-existing college conferences have disappeared, and new conferences have been formed in their wake based less on regional ties and more on television markets.

For example, the Big Ten Conference recently added the University of Maryland and Rutgers University to grab two new TV markets that the Big 10 wanted. They were rewarded with a new agreement from ESPN, Fox and CBS worth nearly $450 million payable over six years – three times the amount of the expiring deal.

The so-called Big 12, which currently only has 10 schools, is now considering going back to 12 or expanding to more. Key factors in the selection of schools: the TV market in which a prospective school resides and the appeal of the school to the networks that have contractual obligations to the Big 12. TV also has a major impact on game scheduling.

To justify money paid, networks want maximum exposure to drive strong ratings. High ratings means more money; more money to TV means more money to schools, conferences and the NCAA. Weekday prime-time games have become commonplace because there are TV slots to fill.

Sixty-five years ago the story was television and the novelty of watching a college football game from afar. Today, watching a college football game on TV is no longer a novelty. And the story is not television as something new but rather television as the funding source for, and senior business partner of, college football.

This business relationship is not likely to change. How we view TV certainly will. College sports has become big business, with media money the prime reason. Fans have not suggested less but rather more of the same.

The challenge will be to keep the business of college football a multiparty relationship, with the college part intact and independent, not the alter-ego of a media enterprise. That will ensure that the rise and expansion of television and college football as a business relationship was a good thing.

Michael Cramer is the executive director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.