November 21, 2012

A marriage made in TV heaven

The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS, by Keith Dunnavant (Macmillan, available as an e-book)

On September 30, 1939, the Fordham Rams and Waynesboro State Yellow Jackets faced off at a small stadium on Randall’s Island in New York in the first college football game ever televised. And though there were only a few hundred television sets in existence, most of them in the New York City area, the telecast of this game started in motion a series of events that continue to this day.

Those events are described in The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS, Keith Dunnavant’s delightful and insightful analysis of the symbiotic relationship between the game and the medium.

Insightful, because Dunnavant provides a concise, readable and often surprising analysis of the evolution of college football on TV, and how the same colleges who once feared television came eventually to sell their souls to it. Delightful, because it also struck a deep chord inside me, a reminder of how much both television and sports have meant to me throughout my life. “[I]t seems clear,” Dunnavant writes in his introduction, “that television played an undeniable role in making sports a powerful force in my life,” and as he talks about the experience of parking in front of the tube watching not just football but basketball, baseball, tennis and other sports, I pretty much saw my early life flash before my eyes.*

*In both black & white and color, I should add.

Indeed, most of my earliest television memories are of sports: a vague impression of the 1965 World Series, surprised because the Twins home games were on television (they usually were; at least I knew that much); the Twins losing to the Red Sox on the last day of the 1967 season: the Packers winning memorable NFL championships against Dallas in 1967 and 1968, then going on to win the first two Super Bowls.

And college football played a large part in those images as well: the New Year’s Day tripleheaders on NBC (Sugar, Rose and Orange), the old ball coach Steve Spurrier quarterbacking Florida to an Orange Bowl win in 1967, the 1968 Sugar Bowl, which featured the most enormous midfield logo I’d ever seen*, the breathtaking last-second Penn State win in the same bowl in 1969 (so tense I couldn’t stand to watch their successful two-point conversion at the end), the epic Game of the Century between Nebraska and Oklahoma on Thanksgiving 1971, the mellifluous voice of Chris Schenkel, and so on.

*I remember nothing of the game itself; I’ve long been intrigued that a team as relatively obscure as Wyoming (even though they were undefeated) played in the Sugar Bowl, but only in the last year or two have I discovered that it was that very 1968 game. I remember nothing of the game, only the field – but I was only 7 at the time.

The point of all that was not to show off my photographic memory of unimportant events in my misspent youth,* but to point out how important memories like these are to millions of people – which in turn helps to explain why the subject matter of Dunnavant’s book has such an economic, as well as athletic, significance.

*Although that’s undoubtedly true.

For there’s no doubt that television has not only affected the economics of college sports, it’s changed the very way the game is played. The rise of some schools and the fall of others, the emergence of the “superconference” – even things that range from integration to the uniforms that college football players now wear – all have, to one extent or another, the fingerprints of television on them.

Dunnavant's story begins in 1951, as college football officials meet to discuss what they see as the rising threat of television.  The increasing interest in televised college football (surprisingly, Penn had already been televising its home games for 10 years at that point) coincided with a precipitous decline in average attendance at games: a 6% drop overall, but as high as 30% in areas with a heavier penetration of television ownership.  Football was, then as now, the primary revenue generator for most institutions, and in 1951 most of that revenue was generated by ticket sales and ancillary income. (Penn made a grand total of $150,000 off their games; Notre Dame did a little better, at $185,000..)  Hence, fewer tickets sold meant less money coming into the coffers.

The answer that they came up with was to give some teeth to a small, unstaffed organization that had previously been housed at a back room in Big 10 headquarters in Chicago and held virtually no authority over its voluntary membership: the NCAA.  That decision, perhaps more than any other, helped mold the game into what it is today.

The panicked membership felt the only way to limit the future damage by television was to limit the number of games broadcast, and that could only be done by negotiating a TV contract that would cover all colleges, rather than the previous practice of letting them make their own deals.  While most schools gladly abdicated their freedom of contract, Penn and Notre Dame, two of the few schools who understood the potential of TV, balked at what the president of Notre Dame called a "socialistic" move on the part of the NCAA.  When Penn attempted to defy the NCAA by signing a contract with ABC anyway, the school was threatened with boycotts of their games by fellow Ivy League schools who were already concerned with what they saw as Penn's undue emphasis on sports.  If followed through, the boycott would effectively cancel Penn's season, and the university ultimately relented in the face of what Dunnavant refers to as "a despicable, shameful act of thuggery, a strong-arm tactic worthy of back alley hoodlums and pulp fiction gangsters."

That first TV contract which the NCAA eventually entered into with NBC for $1.14 million, provided for one televised game each week, and that each school could appear only once per season. It was a far cry from today, but one contemporary touch was already present – players performing for the camera. It was a simpler time though, and so was the mugging; Alabama kicker Cecil “Hootie” Ingram explained how, having noticed that the camera always focused on “the guy kicking off,” he made sure to take his time – adjusting the kicking tee, picking up the ball, pacing around – all the while knowing the camera was on him.

Every relationship has its turning points, the times that signify a subtle shift in power between the partners, and in the relationship between TV and college football a significant turning point is the formation of Sports Programs Inc. by Edgar Scherik in the late 1950s. The small production company almost single-handedly built the ABC sports empire (eventually being bought by the network and relabeled "ABC Sports"), landing the 1960 TV rights for over $6 million, and revolutionizing the sport thanks to its cadre of young turks led by Roone Arledge, Chet Simmons and Andy Sidaris.

It was the dynamic 29-year-old Arledge, whose previous television experience had been working on Sherri Lewis’ puppet show Hi Mom!, who introduced showbiz to college football. His goal was to capture the pomp, the pageantry, “whatever made that game or that campus special.” With kindred soul Sideris’ revolutionary use of rolling and handheld cameras and sideline mics, along with close-ups of cheerleaders, coaches and fans (in stark contrast to NBC’s practice of using three stationary cameras looking down at the field), Arledge, had shifted the emphasis of the telecast: rather than bringing the game into your living room, he was determined to bring you into the stadium. Arledge, according to Dunnavant, “reinvented televised college football and enhanced the sport’s connection to the American public.”

From here on in the story moves swiftly: the 1963 introduction of instant replay at the Army-Navy game, NBC’s decision to move the Orange Bowl into primetime, the celebrated 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State “Game of the Century” that perhaps epitomized the sea change that had come to college football, and the controversial Title IX decision that forced colleges to look for new revenue streams in order to subsidize gender equality in sports.

But in many ways it's all merely window-dressing for the confrontation that shook college football – that, indeed, was probably the single biggest thing to happen to the sport: the formation of the College Football Association (CFA) and its inevitable showdown with the NCAA over television rights. Dunnavant devotes the bulk of the second half of the book to this battle, which began when the administrators of the major football schools, tired of subsidizing the smaller schools that comprised the bulk of NCAA membership, sought to gain more sovereignty for themselves – particularly with regards to the TV contract. They had chafed under the NCAA’s restrictions on television appearances (which had become a key component of recruiting, which was taking on an increasingly national scope), and were even more frustrated that they received a relatively small percentage of the TV money, though it was their appearances that generated the bulk of the revenue flow from the networks.

This showdown, which resulted in two of the CFA’s schools (Georgia and Oklahoma) taking the NCAA to court, culminated in the landmark 1984 Supreme Court decision ruling the NCAA’s television contracts to be a violation of antitrust law. This in turn would create further divisions, first between the CFA and its two largest non-member conferences, the Big 10 and the Pac 10, followed by Notre Dame’s decision to bolt the CFA television deal to go it alone with NBC, and then finally between conferences themselves, battling not only over TV money but, increasingly, over schools themselves, as conference-hopping became an established part of negotiating a better TV contract.

Dunnavant concludes his book with a look at the various attempts to form a true college football championship without upsetting the cash cow represented by the bowl games – what one might call college football’s “peculiar institution” – beginning with the Bowl Alliance, followed by the Bowl Coalition, and finally the Bowl Championship Series (scheduled to be replaced in two years by a four-team playoff). The book ends in 2004, which means we don’t get a chance to see the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that undoubtedly accompanied the decision to go to a playoff; it’s clear, however, that television played a big role in its ultimate approval by the previously reluctant collage administrators.

The book is not without its flaws. There are typos here and there that should have been caught either in the fact-checking or editing process, and there’s occasionally the lack of a cohesive feel to the related stories, leading the reader to wonder just how they’re all connected. One could also have hoped for more anecdotes from decades of televised football games, such as the story of how announcers Lindsay Nelson and Red Grange discussed the possibility of a player coming off the bench in the middle of a play to make a tackle, and then looked like geniuses when that very thing happened the next day in the Cotton Bowl. I’m also more kindly disposed to books that have indexes at the end, something this book sadly lacks. But ultimately these are small miscues in a story that mixes politics, money, technology, ambition and sports to come up with an entertaining, informative brew.

Dunnavant’s book ends in 2004, but in a sense it never really ends, as the changes taking place have continued more or less unabated to the present day. But for all that, two things have remained the same: the popularity of college football with the public, and the popularity of money with the colleges. On any given day a fan can sit at home and, with the benefit of cable TV, can watch more games than he would have seen in an entire season in 1960. The monetary value of college football TV packages has soared to levels that in 1960 would have been more appropriate to discussions of the national debt. More than ever, schools have been divided into the haves vs. the have-nots. And overriding it all is the 21st Century version of the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold rules.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent book. I got my copy back in 2005 shortly after it was published and seeing everything else that has happened since this book was published as been amazing.

    ReplyDelete

Keep those cards and letters coming in!