The following is a guest post written by S.M. Oliva – a regular contributor to Saturday Down South. He is a writer and paralegal living in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As the NFL’s lockout enters its fourth month with no clear sign of ending, some have asked whether college football might fill the void on Sundays this fall if there are no professional games. Before addressing that question, however, it’s worth reviewing the historical relationship between the NFL, college football, television, and federal law.
The first televised football game took place in 1938, when a University of Pennsylvania home game was made available to the estimated six working sets in Philadelphia. Two years later, Penn televised its entire home schedule (presumably to a double-digit audience). Yet other college football powers refused to embrace television. In 1951 an NCAA committee determined that “television does have an adverse effect on college football attendance and unless brought under some control threatens to seriously harm the nation’s overall physical and athletic system.”
Following the 1951 report, the NCAA imposed a moratorium on all college football telecasts, and shortly thereafter the association announced a strict television policy that would govern college football for the next 30 years. The NCAA limited national football broadcasts to one game per week for no more than seven Saturdays per year, and no team could appear on national television more than twice. Any school that defied the NCAA faced sanctions.
Even through the mid-1980s, the NCAA maintained that the demand for televised athletics was limited and strict regulation was necessary to serve the greater good. In 1984 Jim Delaney, then commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference, bemoaned the fact that larger conferences had signed deals to televise basketball games with a minor cable outfit called ESPN: “With the exception of a few basketball junkies, most college fans are not terribly excited about the quantity and quality of college basketball on the airways.”
Delaney went on to become the commissioner of the Big 10 Conference, where he directly supervised the creation of the Big Ten Network, the first internationally distributed network devoted to a single college athletics conference. Obviously something changed in the 27 years since Delaney condemned the expansion of college sports on television.
What changed was the legal environment. While the NCAA was somewhat more liberal about television appearances by the early 1980s, it still demanded absolute control. In 1981 the NCAA’s contracts with CBS and ABC granted only limited rights to negotiate with individual schools. At least 82 different schools had to appear over a two-year period, no more than 35 games could be telecast nationally per year, and no school could appear more than four times nationally and six times regionally. The NCAA also fixed the prices schools could charge networks for game rights.
In defiance of the NCAA, five major conferences, including the SEC, formed the College Football Association in the late 1970s. The CFA negotiated a separate contract with NBC that provided for more televised games than the NCAA’s contracts while generating more revenue for CFA member schools. The NCAA responded by threatening sanctions against the CFA participants, which in turn led Oklahoma and SEC power Georgia to file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA.
Georgia and Oklahoma ultimately prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1984 opinion, seven justices held that that the NCAA’s three-decade television cartel “on its face constitutes a restraint of trade upon the operation of a free market … [and it] has operated to raise price and reduce output, both of which are unresponsive to consumer preference.”
The Supreme Court’s decision heralded the modern era of televised college football. Individual schools and conferences could now negotiate their own television deals free of the NCAA’s restrictions. This has proven especially important to the growth and popularity of the SEC. The conference’s most recent contracts with CBS and ESPN alone are worth $3.1 billion over ten years. And according to attorney and sports-business writer Kristi Dosh, six SEC schools are among the top-ten earners in total broadcast revenues.
Why the NFL Doesn’t Play Saturday Games
And then there’s the NFL. Like the NCAA, the NFL’s initial reaction to television was fear and mistrust. The Los Angeles Rams were the first NFL club to televise home games, in 1950. By 1951, the league adopted its own NCAA-like television plan, which banned all telecasts of home games (in order to protect live attendance). The NFL also banned telecasts of out-of-market games on the same day a home team played. In other words, if the Rams were playing, home or away, no other NFL game could air in Los Angeles on the same day.
The U.S. Justice Department sued the NFL to overturn its television rules, claiming, as Oklahoma and Georgia did with the NCAA 30 years later, that the restrictions violated federal antitrust law. U.S. District Judge Allan K. Grim partially agreed. He upheld the ban on televising home games — the so-called blackout rule that still survives, in a more limited form, to this day — but he agreed with the government that the NFL could not prohibit telecasting out-of-market games when there was no home game to “protect.”
By 1961 the NFL had overcome its resistance to television, in part responding to the rival American Football League’s decision to televise all of its games under a contract with NBC. The NFL signed its own single-network contract with CBS. Unfortunately, Judge Grim, who retained jurisdiction over the earlier Justice Department case, said this also violated his previous decision. As Grim saw things, individual NFL clubs could not transfer their broadcasting rights to the league as an entity. The fact that the AFL, which was not subject to his order, had entered into the exact same sort of contract was irrelevant.
The NFL petitioned Congress to overturn Grim’s decision by carving out a special antitrust exemption for single-network television contracts. Congress obliged and enacted the Sports Broadcasting Act (SBA) in 1961, which protected not just the NFL and AFL, but also Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League. Under the SBA, teams could “pool” their broadcast rights under their respective leagues and negotiate television deals as a single entity, without fear of violating the antitrust laws. (Note the SBA did not apply to the NCAA, which is why Georgia and Oklahoma were able to pursue their antitrust lawsuit nearly 20 years later.)
But the story didn’t end there. Congress did impose one condition on the professional football leagues. The SBA would not apply if any television contract allowed the NFL (or at the time, the AFL) to broadcast games “on any Friday after [6 p.m.] or on any Saturday during the period beginning on the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December.” In other words, the NFL could not televise games if they competed directly against college football. The NFL and AFL readily agreed to this restriction, as they already restricted their schedules to Sunday afternoons.
The Friday-Saturday restriction was the direct result of lobbying from the NCAA. A House committee noted in its report on the SBA, “[NCAA representatives] are convinced that uncontrolled televising of professional football games could be ruinous to what is known as in-person attendance at college games. It is their position that professional football should not be granted exemption from the antitrust laws for package television contracts at the expense of intercollegiate football.”
Southern members of Congress, who came from states representing SEC, ACC, and Southwest Conference schools, were especially receptive towards the NCAA’s position. There was near-unanimity within Congress that college football must be protected from even the possibility of professional encroachment on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.
Sunday Down South?
The SBA and the Friday-Saturday ban remain in effect today. In fact, Congress expanded the ban in 1966 to prevent the NFL from broadcasting games that might conflict with high school football. As a result, the NFL sought refuge on other, unprotected days of the week, starting with Monday night games in 1970 and Thursday nights starting in 2006.
For its part, college football now occupies almost every day of the calendar, including the occasional Sunday game, although the SEC and major conferences still play the bulk of their schedules on Saturday. The SBA only restricts the NFL, not college football, in determining what days to play and televise games on.
This favorable legal regime, combined with the current NFL labor impasse, creates an opportunity for college football conferences to explore Sunday games. There’s little downside. If the SEC or Pac-12 decide to fill the NFL void this September by playing a couple games on Sunday, the NFL won’t be able to retaliate later by playing games on Saturday; that day is protected by federal law. (Of course, the NFL might try to retaliate against any network that aired Sunday college games, but I suspect the league’s leverage over the networks has diminished in light of recent events.)
That said, there may also be little upside to Sunday games, especially for a traditional powerhouse like the SEC. The conference doesn’t lack for television exposure — the days of the NCAA’s socialist television restrictions are long gone. And while Sunday games may prove just as popular as Saturday games, the effect would likely be temporary. Of course, the calculation might be different if the NFL cancels its entire 2011 season rather then simply delay it or play a limited schedule.