The Nexus of Television and Sports in Transition, Part II: College Sports’ Faustian Bargain: A Case Study in ESPN’s Influence

No one could have imagined just how much the NCAA v. Board of Regents decision would end up changing college football. The colleges who brought the suit simply wanted more control over the television contract, and for most of the 80s the CFA didn’t offer much that was different from what the NCAA had been offering. But ESPN began offering more and more games to a nationwide audience, and in 1991 Notre Dame broke from the CFA and signed a contract to air its games nationally on NBC. The SEC and Big East followed suit in breaking from the CFA in 1995, and the floodgates opened. College football was no longer a regional phenomenon played out on Saturdays throughout the fall; now it was a national sport played nonstop for three months.

Before 1984, the national championship was a sideshow, something that people paid attention to and debated over but that was of secondary importance to people’s regional rivalries and conferences. Every year the AP and coaches’ polls were taken at the end of the season and whoever got the most votes was declared the national champion. It was an extra crown to wear at the end of the season on top of the prizes that really mattered, winning your conference or at least winning your rivalries and going to a bowl game. Now people could follow the best teams and conferences all season long, and the sport’s basically nonexistent national championship, in a sports landscape littered with playoffs and certain championship games, became unacceptable. After co-champions were crowned in 1990 and 1991, the conferences that housed the CFA schools (the Big Ten and Pac-10 had separate contracts) plus Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition to attempt to force a “national championship game” between the top two teams in the nation. This was superceded by the Bowl Alliance in 1995 and finally by the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 following the CFA’s demise. The BCS managed to get the Big Ten, Pac-10, and Rose Bowl on board, putting decades of the Rose Bowl pitting Big 10 and Pac-10 champions against one another at risk (or throwing it out entirely every fourth year, at least at first), but meaning for once it could claim to really and truly be the true national championship of college football.

Except it wasn’t. Despite many tweaks to the formula over the years, the BCS only focused attention on just how much college football wasn’t set up to crown a true national champion. Controversy over the national champion – and if not that the championship game matchup, and if not that the teams in the other BCS bowls – appeared nearly every year of the BCS’ existence, and beyond that teams from the so-called “mid-major” conferences were utterly precluded from playing for the national championship. Their ability to play at the level of the major conferences had long been in doubt, but a series of high-profile wins over major-conference teams on the occasions they did make BCS bowls made more people wonder whether they – or at least, the Mountain West’s Utah, TCU, and BYU, and the WAC’s Boise State – really did deserve to play for national championships. Calls for a true playoff mounted over the years, and eventually the commissioners relented, instituting the new six-bowl, four-team College Football Playoff system to begin next year.

ESPN also created proliferation in the bowl system in general. There were only eleven bowl games in 1975, sixteen in 1983, and nineteen as late as 1994 (and eighteen for the next two years); for perspective, there were 107 teams in Division I-A in 1994, and any team with a winning record was eligible for a bowl, so you would expect 53-54 teams to be eligible for 38 invitations, most of them going to members of the power conferences. By 2000 there were 25 bowls; luckily Division I-A had grown to 116 teams as schools sought the vast amounts of television money pouring into college football’s top division, so there were 58 teams to fill the 50 spots. In 2002 three new bowls were added, bringing the total to 28, but only one team had joined I-A, so the 58-59 teams now had to fill 56 spots – in other words, you were nearly guaranteed a bowl if you finished with a winning record.

Then the NCAA decided to add a twelfth game to FBS teams’ schedules and allow 6-6 teams to go to bowl games, meaning the way was clear for more than half of teams in FBS to go to bowl games; four games started up in 2006 alone, opening 64 bowl spots for the 119-team FBS. As of the 2013-14 season there were 35 bowl games – only two of which are not on an ESPN platform – and a further flurry of teams entering the FBS ranks has expanded their number to 124, with five more to come. Naturally, although the new CFP will remove the BCS Championship Game from the slate of bowl games, there are already four games lined up to take its place, with several more looking to join their ranks.

ESPN and NCAA v. Board of Regents also shattered tradition and stability in the very makeup and identity of conferences. In 1984, no major college conference had more than ten teams, and most of them had most of their lineups remaining the same for decades. But in the 1980s, many members of the Southwest Conference, made up mostly of Texas schools, were hit with NCAA sanctions, including SMU’s infamous “death penalty” in 1987. In 1992, Arkansas left the SWC for the SEC, which had found a loophole in the NCAA bylaws that would allow it to split into two divisions and hold a conference championship game if it had 12 members, and so added then-independent South Carolina as well to hit the 12-team mark. That inspired Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor – half of the SWC’s then-membership – to join with the members of the Big Eight conference, including Oklahoma and Nebraska, to form the Big 12 conference, complete with their own title game, starting in 1996. The remaining four schools fell into mid-major conferences.

Television money and the BCS meant your conference defined your prospects. The more appearances on national television your conference, and thus your team, had, the more visibility you had in the public eye and the more attractive your school was to recruits. And if your school was a member of one of the six “BCS conferences”, the financial benefits couldn’t be counted; the worst team in a BCS conference made much more money off the BCS than the best team in a non-BCS conference could ever hope for. Independence – there were 26 independent schools in the 1990 season, five of which were ranked, more than any single conference – was no longer a viable option unless you were Notre Dame, whose independence survived only because of a combination of being one of the five most storied programs in the country (if not the most storied), its alumni being dead-set against joining a conference for any reason, and the fact NBC was willing to pay it to air its games and only its games.

The Big East, a basketball conference that had been formed primarily with monetary considerations in mind and greatly benefitted from ESPN’s money and exposure, only formed its football conference in 1991, adding five schools to fill out an eight-team football lineup, meaning only three of its prior members were members of the football conference. Though it enjoyed BCS status (thanks to initially having powerhouse Miami and later adding some of the better teams from Conference USA like Louisville), the Big East saw repeated defections to the ACC and the tension between its football and basketball sides ultimately caused it to split in two. Conference USA itself was only formed in 1996, composed mostly of independents whose previous non-football-sponsoring conferences had just merged. The WAC briefly expanded to 16 teams at the same time, taking in three of the SWC’s refugees, but that proved to be too unwieldy a size and it soon broke in two, with half its schools leaving to form the Mountain West in 1999; the MAC, meanwhile, added two schools in 1997 and also started staging a conference title game.

By 2007 only three independents remained in FBS – Notre Dame, Navy, and Army – and Army had spent several years in Conference USA. As early as 2004 Notre Dame and Navy were joined as the only independent schools by Florida Atlantic, which had just made the move to what was still called Division I-A and would join the Sun Belt the following year.

But 2007 would also completely and fundamentally redefine the nature of television money and make what conference you were in more important than ever. That year, the Big Ten, in association with Fox, launched the Big Ten Network. The Mountain West had launched its own network the previous year, but the BTN was the first network devoted to and owned by a major college conference. Much like the professional teams that launched and controlled their own networks, the Big Ten would control half the advertising and subscription revenue for the network that aired their games, rather than just collect a rights fee. Within three years, the BTN was making almost as much money for Big Ten schools as the conference’s contract with ESPN, resulting in Big Ten schools making $22 million each per year – more than three times as much as a school in any other conference, BCS or no, outside the SEC. For all its tradition and history, the Big Ten was now, more than anything else, a moneymaking alliance.

With Big Ten schools making so much money, the Big Ten could have its pick of just about any school in the country that would leap at the chance to get in on the action. In the past, even when driven by television money, realignment had been based primarily on geography and rivalries; the four Texas schools were a natural addition to the Big Eight, besides the existing bitter rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma; the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina were natural outgrowths of the SEC’s existing footprint; the Big Ten itself had added Penn State, a natural fit to its Midwestern roots. Now all that mattered to schools was the value of the conference’s television contract, and all that mattered to conferences was how an addition could maximize that value. If the Big Ten could add Texas and the bounty of television households it added to the Big Ten Network (and an inroad into those fertile recruiting grounds), or add a school that could help it make inroads into the lucrative New York market, it would. Too much geographic fit was now actually a bad thing if it didn’t help the BTN get into any new households.

Even the Big Ten’s role as a conference became less important than its television contracts to its identity. It could easily expand to a 16-team “superconference”, maybe even 20, doubling the size of what any conference might have looked like just a generation earlier, despite there still being only 12 games in an FBS season and some of those needing to be nonconference games, to say nothing of the impact such an unwieldy conference would have on other sports, including basketball. Indeed, the Pac-10 came close to recruiting three Texas schools, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to form a superconference itself, with the arrangement only falling apart when Texas A&M elected to join the SEC instead and ESPN guaranteed the value of the Big 12’s contract to keep it together, leaving the Pac-10 with only Colorado.

The spectre of ESPN and TV money in general hovered in the background throughout the process, and sometimes moved very much into the foreground. ESPN saving the Big 12 was far from the end of it. The Big East rejected a massive TV contract from ESPN, only to lose two of its most prominent schools, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, to the ACC – and then listened to Boston College’s athletic director make comments about the move that included the money line “TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do”. The AD and all parties involved quickly backed off the comments, but for many bloggers it seemed an admission that ESPN was pulling all the strings on conference realignment and, in this particular case, may have given the Big East the proverbial “offer they couldn’t refuse” and the departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh were the metaphorical horse’s head in their bed. The Big East effectively divorced from itself, the conference’s Catholic schools seceding and winning the rights to take the Big East name with them, while the remnants that were left behind – those that didn’t decide they didn’t want to join after all – were left to take much less money from ESPN and go forward as the American Athletic Conference.

Longstanding rivalries were thrown by the wayside in this round of realignment in the name of chasing the almighty dollar. The “Backyard Brawl” between West Virginia and Pittsburgh was quite possibly the biggest college football rivalry in the Northeast, with only World War II interrupting it since 1919. Didn’t matter: the Big 12 needed teams to make up for defections and decided West Virginia had the best combination of a strong school and a strong football program known nationwide despite being hundreds of miles from any other team in the conference, while the ACC decided they needed to shore up their claim to being the conference of the Northeast and added Syracuse and Pittsburgh despite how far those schools were from the Atlantic coast or the rest of the conference. The “Border War” between Kansas and Missouri reflected a bitter rivalry between those states that dated to before the Civil War. Didn’t matter: the SEC needed a 14th team to go with Texas A&M and valued the population Missouri could add to the conference and the overall quality being enough to make up for adding another mouth to feed.

The Big Ten ultimately decided to add Nebraska, a team from a small market but a football powerhouse with a national following and another natural geographic and cultural outgrowth for the conference, while the Pac-10 added Utah to complement Colorado and decided to start their own conference network without help from anyone else and retaining a considerable amount of inventory for itself. The result earned so much money that the SEC reconsidered their position on conference networks. The SEC’s contract was up for renegotiation shortly after the BTN was unveiled and ESPN effectively bribed them away from starting their own network by paying them over a billion dollars, taking control of virtually their entire inventory, and giving them one of the most widely-distributed syndication packages in the country, but the SEC, despite having the richest contract and in the midst of an unprecedented run of national championships, added Texas A&M and Missouri in part as a pretext to renegotiate the contract to start a network, even if the terms of the contract effectively made partnering with ESPN the only way to do so.

Meanwhile the Big Ten, despite sitting at twelve teams (in a much-commented-on irony, the Big 12 sat at ten), the sweet spot to hold a conference championship game, decided they needed to expand further, and while in the past Penn State and Nebraska had been good cultural fits for the rest of the conference, this time they added Maryland and Rutgers, two schools on the eastern seaboard a good distance away from any other Big Ten schools, Maryland a rising basketball power that had recently started a budding intra-ACC rivalry with Duke but facing massive financial problems, Rutgers a school that had played in the first-ever college football game and had had a brief flowering of success but was still an uninspiring school with an apathetic at best fanbase. More than anything else, the addition of Maryland and Rutgers showed how the priorities had changed: it was more than anything about preventing the ACC from having an undisputed claim to the Northeast and putting the BTN on cable systems in the big markets of Washington, DC and New York City respectively.

ESPN has had near-monopoly status over the sports landscape for a long time – and by the mid-2000s, it had reached the point that the Justice Department began looking into it. At issue was the notion of “warehousing” inventory with college conferences: ESPN was signing deals left and right with just about every collegiate conference, taking in way more inventory than they had space to air it on ESPN and ESPN2, but refusing to sell their excess to anyone else. Many smaller conferences accused ESPN of hoarding inventory to keep it away from potential competitors and limit conferences’ exposure.

The issue was brought to a head by a fledgling network named College Sports Television, or CSTV, which had launched in 2002. CSTV, the first network dedicated entirely to college sports, was too small to have any shot at any rights from the major conferences, but it hoped to pick up some rights from the better mid-majors – only to find that ESPN had all the rights they were looking for and weren’t giving them up, and threatened any conferences that looked to do business with CSTV.

In 2004, CSTV took their case to the Justice Department. Though then-President George Bodenheimer recently dismissed the importance of the investigation, ESPN’s lawyers took it seriously and cautioned executives to tread lightly. ESPN was in the midst of negotiations with the Western Athletic Conference at the time, whose commissioner wanted to make a deal with CSTV that would yield more money and TV appearances, while the school presidents wanted a deal with ESPN that could offer wider exposure. Reportedly, when the commissioner asked an ESPN executive, how ESPN could continue its warehousing practices in the wake of the Justice Department’s investigation, the executive dismissed the idea.

Clearly, though, the investigation had an effect. CSTV would soon lure the Mountain West Conference away from ESPN, and ESPN agreed to share rights to Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 with the upstart network. Shortly thereafter, CSTV would be acquired by CBS, giving it big pockets and a major media corporation to help it make inroads on cable systems; it has since metamorphosed into the all-purpose CBS Sports Network. And the following March, ESPN would launch a new network, ESPNU, that would be its answer to CSTV but – more than that – would provide more space for ESPN to show content it had under contract and thus reduce warehousing complaints. The fact that it would provide more fuel for Disney’s bundle and a new revenue stream certainly didn’t hurt.

Today, ESPNU is in 75.6 million households and collects a 20-cent subscriber fee, putting another $15 million in ESPN’s coffers every month, or $181 million a year. CBS Sports Network, meanwhile, only recently crossed the 50-million mark and collects a slightly lower subscriber fee, netting just over $10 million a month or $120 million a year – and it doesn’t have the deep pockets ESPN has from its myriad of other networks.

No sport has been influenced more by television, and specifically ESPN, over the last few decades than college football, and the proof is printed right on the tickets – or rather, it’s in what’s not printed: the kickoff time. The dates and opponents may be scheduled months or years in advance, but for most of the season, nearly every Saturday game in a power conference has its kickoff time up in the air, waiting for its TV partners to inform them what games will air when and on what networks, which occurs twelve days before game day, in some cases only six. Other sports and leagues have embraced this notion of “flexible scheduling”, but none have taken it as far as college football, where fans (and coaches, and players, and school officials) have literally no clue when their game will kick off until less than two weeks in advance.

College football, in other words, has become a made-for-TV event. After the Board of Regents decision, ESPN convinced smaller conferences to break from tradition and play games on Thursday; today, Thursday is a destination night populated mostly by the biggest conferences, and ESPN has populated most of the week from Tuesday to Saturday with college football. ESPN has even gotten into the business of playing matchmaker, finding schools with holes in their nonconference schedules and booking matchups between them to create attractions people will watch every week of the season. In an age where schools are constantly maximizing their wins in order to increase their chances of qualifying for bowls or playing for the national championship, such ESPN creations are just about the only place where quality nonconference matchups happen in the regular season outside of regularly scheduled rivalries. ESPN even owns the software used by virtually every school – and even competing networks – to schedule games, known as the Pigskin Access Scheduling System (PASS).

The “BCS busters”, such as TCU and Boise State, could owe their success to ESPN and their willingness to play games when ESPN asked them to, even if it fell in the middle of the week and heavily inconvenienced fans. Those games meant exposure, exposure that could be golden for a school that couldn’t otherwise count on it. TCU was mired in the dumps a few years after being left behind by the Southwest Conference’s collapse, but it built its way back up by accommodating ESPN and playing all throughout the week, even playing on Friday and thus competing against high school football, a religion in Texas. It paid off: even after the Mountain West left ESPN in 2006, TCU had such success it made repeated trips to BCS bowls, even the vaunted Rose Bowl, and eventually made it back to the big time, rejoining several of its fellow Southwest Conference-mates in the Big 12 in 2012, where they scored a Thanksgiving-night upset win over mighty Texas.

Boise State followed the same formula upon joining the Western Athletic Conference, a conference that had weekday slots to fill on ESPN, in 2001, just five years after entering Division I-A. Before long, Boise State scored a landmark victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, and the WAC’s rights payments from ESPN were the envy of most other non-BCS conferences. But once Boise State decided to make even more money in the Mountain West, it was the beginning of the end for the WAC. Its rights fee from ESPN plummeted to less than a third of its former value, and as the Mountain West lost teams to other conferences, it repeatedly raided the WAC’s best schools, and soon the WAC became almost unrecognizable. With only seven football-playing schools left, 2012 was the WAC’s last year even sponsoring a football conference, and now as a non-football conference it’s populated by such schools as Seattle University, which only recently even returned to Division I.

Louisville was one of the first to boast of the benefits ESPN provided it. In 1995, it had just joined Conference USA, and decided to construct a new, state-of-the-art football stadium to replace one that was pushing 40 years old. After finishing 1-10 in 1997, it hired a new coach that brought a television-friendly pass-happy offense to the football team, a ticket Boise State would also use to attract ESPN’s attention. Conference USA signed a contract in 2001 that made it the first conference to colonize Tuesday and Wednesday nights for football, but most of its schools balked at the notion of going so far against tradition, at a time when even Thursday night games were only grudgingly accepted. Louisville, then mostly a commuter school, was not one of them. They played as many as five or six games in the middle of the week the first two years of the contract, or half of their entire schedule. The school effectively had to blaze its own trail for how to prepare with such an unusual schedule, but it paid off in exposure and in wins. Louisville became a national name in a way it never had been before, and by 2006 it not only found itself in a BCS conference (the Big East), it wound up going 12-1 and playing in (and winning) the Orange Bowl. Two Thursday night games against other national-caliber opponents that year became some of the highest rated college football games in the history of ESPN, convincing more prominent schools Thursday nights were worth the disruption.

This year Louisville will join the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference, and with it will come much more television money – but even beyond that is the ability to hit up local businesses and alumni for more donations to improve the athletic department’s facilities off the back of its national-caliber programs. And on-field success has also built Louisville into an academic power as well: better students and professors, more students living on campus, more scholarships, more academic achievements.

ESPN has also gotten into the business of owning many of its own bowls, because it knows how important bowl games are to filling up its December schedule, no matter what teams play in them. The nine bowls it owns are some of the lowest-rated of the season, and many might not exist without ESPN propping them up. But prop them up it does, because even the lowest-rated bowls still attract millions of viewers, viewers even ESPN would struggle to attract any other way, viewers drawn to the live programming that is ESPN’s biggest strength. Those millions of viewers are now one of the biggest rewards of trips to bowls, which can help a mediocre program draw recruits and stay where they are or even move further up the chain. They help explain why a school whose team goes 6-6 leaps at the opportunity to go to a bowl, even a tiny one, even if the vast majority of schools end up losing money on the enterprise.

In general, success in college sports has become a high-stakes game of blackjack for schools increasingly facing tight budgets and rising tuition costs. Every school seeks to match the rise of Boise State in football or Gonzaga in basketball, becoming a national name that makes money directly for the university and gets their name into the minds of potential students. Most end up losing money on the enterprise. Of 340 Division I schools, only about 23 end up making a profit and sending money back to their schools’ general fund.

With so much at stake, academics is increasingly left by the wayside. The NCAA’s insistence on referring to its players as “student-athletes” – and its incessant commercials during the NCAA Tournament that proclaim that “most of [them] will go pro in something other than sports” – increasingly rings hollow. Conference realignment and weekday games increasingly means longer travel-times and less time to attend classes and take tests. Once a way to help build healthy bodies as well as healthy minds, college athletic departments are now professional sports teams within academic institutions – except they don’t have to pay their players.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to defend the amateur status of student-athletes, once considered the core principle of collegiate athletics, when seemingly everyone else is making money from the system hand over fist. Not that student-athletes are necessarily coming away empty-handed; these days it seems like a program and its alumni should be assumed to be paying its players under the table until proven otherwise, and the NCAA seems to be a bunch of Keystone Kops, seemingly helpless to enforce its own rules (if not actively looking the other way) and its punishment seemingly arbitrary and capricious, if not completely random, when it does come. The notion of paying for a student-athlete’s “full cost of attendance” above and beyond a player’s scholarship, room and board, is enjoying increasing popularity among college athletics’ gatekeepers, but for many, it’s far from enough.

Ed O’Bannon was a star player on UCLA’s 1995 national championship team before having a short NBA career. One day, he discovered that his likeness was being used on NCAA-branded video games, yet he wasn’t seeing a dime in revenue from them. He brought a class-action suit against the NCAA that could have a tremendous impact on the NCAA’s money flow and how college athletes are treated. So could the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling last month that Northwestern football players meet the definition of “employees” and so are allowed to form a union – implicitly allowing the same for all private universities. (Student-athletes at public universities would have to go through individual states’ labor boards.)

Lost in the increasingly heated debate over the treatment of student-athletes is the fact that the entire reason the NCAA’s claims of being an educational, amateur enterprise ring so hollow, and why the whole issue has come to a head to begin with, is because of the millions if not billions of dollars pouring into collegiate athletics that have already wiped out the purity of college sports the NCAA claims to be defending in the eyes of all but the most idealistic, deluded, or self-interested observers. That money is coming in partly to fill time on ESPN and other networks, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much if college sports weren’t so incredibly popular, with college football providing America’s most popular sports programming outside the NFL and Olympics.

Similarly, the NCAA will point out that if football or basketball stars were really so exploited by not being paid beyond the costs of their scholarship, they could play in minor leagues or, in the case of basketball, abroad, or if they wanted to, the NFL or NBA could start their own developmental leagues akin to the minor league baseball system. But players don’t go to those leagues, and the NFL shut down its developmental league, NFL Europe, not that long ago, because no one cares about them – nor do they really care all that much about minor league baseball, for that matter, despite its own history and tradition. But they care mightily about their college teams, and in turn, those audiences allow players to build their brand and starpower and grow their exposure in ways nothing else out there can.

And the reason that people care so much about college sports is the connection between the team and the school that inspires people to root for “their school’s” team regardless of who the players are and in spite of the fact all the players would much rather be in the NFL or NBA. That passion has inspired, and continues to sustain, a multibillion dollar industry that has severed the very connection that built it. Big time college athletes don’t care one whit about the school they attend beyond the team that represents it and only go to class because the conditions of their scholarship demand it. They are only there to develop their game and their brand for the professional leagues. In essence, big-time college sports consist of developmental teams for the NFL and NBA (that those leagues don’t have to pay for) that have sold their naming rights for a fanbase. Jerry Seinfeld’s crack about how professional sports fandom, especially in the post-free agency era, amounts to “rooting for laundry”, is all the more apt in modern college athletics.

That professional sports leagues have managed to survive and thrive in the post-free agency era in spite of Seinfeld’s observation suggests the same could be true of college athletics if the players were acknowledged as paid employees. Still, what could happen if the façade were lifted on the system and college sports became, if they weren’t already, professional teams whose only difference from the actual professional teams were the quality and limited career of the players and the mostly arbitrary connection to the school you attended? (At least professional teams have to have some sort of connection to a location; many college teams play well off-campus and some share arenas or fields with pro teams.) The NCAA – and ESPN – might not want to find out.

Tomorrow: How other media companies are trying to copy ESPN’s lucrative business model.

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