August 16, 2012

The revolution that was televised

A couple of weeks ago SI.com's Andy Staples wrote a very interesting article about "How television changed college football."  The story focuses on the early 1980s, after the Supreme Court had ruled against the NCAA's television package.  Suddenly college football - which had been heavily restricted under the NCAA's contract with various networks - was literally all over the dial. And, as is often the case when supply soars, demand dropped - in this case, ratings.  Even worse, for the colleges, was the drop in the rights fees paid by the networks.  Now this was serious.

How the coin flipped - as conferences replaced the NCAA as the unit under which television rights were negotiated, and old-line independent schools such as Penn State and Miami scrambled to join these conferences - is the subject of Staples' piece, and it's well worth reading for anyone interested in finding out how a rich and corrupt sport became even more rich and even more corrupt in the span of thirty or so years.

Good as it was, though, I think Staples missed the first piece of the puzzle, for in reality the change in the relationship between television and college football started not in 1984, but almost twenty years earler - November 19, 1966 to be exact - when the biggest game in the history of college football to date was played: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State.

I've written about this game before over at the mother site, but I think it bears repeating in the context of Staples' story.  The game, pitting the undefeated and top-ranked Fighting Irish (then, as now, the glamour school of college football) against the undefeated and second-ranked Spartans (the brutes of the pre-Ohio State-Michigan Big 10), was the latest in the season that numbers one and two had ever faced off.  The teams were not only undefeated, but totally so.  The hype in the weeks leading up to the game guaranteed it would be the most watched game of the year.  Tickets valued at $5 went for more than ten times that on the resale market, as the game itself was long sold out.  For those without, their only hope was TV.  And therein lies the rub.

As Mike Celizic recounts in The Biggest Game of Them All, the matchup left ABC (who you would think would be thrilled at this matchup) somewhat behind the 8-ball.  You see, back then colleges were limited as to the number of times they could appear on national television.  Notre Dame, the biggest draw of them all, had exhausted their allotment.  That meant the the game could only be shown on regional television; the South and Pacific Northwest would get another game, even while Hawaii, Vietnam and the U.S. Armed Forces in Europe would be seeing the game that everyone was talking about.*

*Including the Wall Street Journal, which did a front-page story on the buildup to the game, and dispatched writers to the two campuses.  The Wall Street Journal, back then, never wrote about sports, let alone put it on the front page.

ABC was flooded with letters - 50,000 in all - asking that the game be shown nationally.  A man went to court to try and force national coverage.  He claimed he had a Constitutional right to see it.  He lost.*  A petition bearing 20,000 signatures arrived in New York, begging ABC to reconsider.  And while people made plans to travel to where the game would be shown, ABC finally offered a compromise: they would show the game on tape-delay in those areas which didn't get it live.  It wasn't perfect, but it was something.  Except, that is, for the man who couldn't wait even two hours for the replay, and instead flew to New York - at a cost of over $150 - to see the broadcast live.

*John Roberts wasn't yet on the Supreme Court.

The hysteria continued; over 700 sportswriters converged on East Lansing for the game - a figure it would take the Super Bowl several years to reach.  Catholic churches changed Confession times so the priests could see their beloved Fighting Irish.  High schools and colleges changed their kickoff times to later in the day, convinced that otherwise they'd be playing in front of empty stands.  The eventual numbers: a Nielsen rating of 22.5, or 33 million viewer, the largest audience ever to see a college football game on TV.

The game itself was inconclusive: a 10-10 tie that, combined with Notre Dame's 51-0 victory over USC the next week (Michigan State's season ended with the Notre Dame game) enabled the Irish to claim the national championship.  But the aftereffects of the game, mostly due to television, were immense.

Alabama, the nation's only undefeated, untied team, finished third in the standings, convincing Bear Bryant that the Tide needed more national exposure, which meant playing teams from outside the South - and recruiting the black players that Northern teams such as Michigan State had been recruiting for years.  Bowls would gain in importance, as the AP decided something as important as the national championship deserved to be settled after the best teams had played each other on New Year's Day.  Notre Dame, not wanting to be left out in the cold, rescinded its no-bowl policy.  The Big 10, which up to that point had a "no-repeat" policy that prohibited teams from making consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl, even if they were conference champs, would change that as well, to make sure they didn't miss their slice of the pie.

Television saw the ratings appeal of college football - and the dollars it would bring.  As for the role of television itself, remember that this was only three years after the JFK assassination, and people were just beginning to understand the power that television had.  Not just people, but the networks themselves.  ABC found out first-hand what kind of a winner it had with ND-MSU, and understood how that could bode well in the future.  It wasn't long before TV realized it could start calling the shots*, and for the right price the colleges would play along.

*A little-known sidelight to the ND-MSU game is that it was followed on ABC by USC-UCLA - the first time a college doubleheader had ever been televised.  And that wasn't all - Michigan State's Spartan Stadium lacked lights, meaning that even had it wanted to, ABC couldn't move the game to prime-time, where perhaps even more viewers awaited. 

Major changes never happen all at once - as with the frog in the boiling water, these things often take time.  But there can be no question that the seismic changes in 1984 were wrought in the furnace that was Spartan Stadium on that late November afternoon in 1966, when the most heralded game to that time was played.  And you can't underestimate the impact that television had in that game, and how that impact would continue to grow in the years to follow.

* * *

And for those of you interested, or curious, here's the controversial finish to the game, as seen live on ABC with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson calling the action.

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