After years of squabbling, including contentious hearings on Capitol Hill, the leaders of big-time college football sealed a tentative peace agreement last spring. It guarantees the marginal conferences greater access to the lucrative Bowl Championship Series -- but it was written in pencil. Now, TV negotiations that began in September will test whether the deal risks destroying the games that lay the golden eggs.
The BCS is a four-bowl partnership created by the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and Southeastern conferences, plus Notre Dame. It rotates the national championship game among the FedEx Orange, Nokia Sugar, Tostitos Fiesta, and Rose Bowls. Still, the BCS has failed to quell controversy over which team deserves to be No. 1. Last year critics howled when the BCS rankings put Oklahoma in the title game instead of undefeated University of Southern California. But the money keeps flowing. The series will ring up $93.1 million this year to fund the college sports monster.
So with ABC Sports' (DIS) eight-year, $550 million BCS contract scheduled to expire in 2006, the renewal negotiations could have a far-reaching impact on the future of the series and the provisional cease-fire between the haves and have-nots. "This whole thing is about creating access to something that has proven successful," says Big East Commissioner Michael A. Tranghese. But he questions whether the marketplace will support access for the upstarts.
The problem is that the deal hammered out at the college-president level to create a fifth bowl game and provide an easier route for the lesser teams to qualify may weaken the BCS as a TV property. Fearing that more games featuring teams from lower-level leagues could drive down ratings and advertising rates, ABC Sports executives -- who say they're already losing money on the series -- caution against diluting the powerful BCS brand. "We do write a pretty big check, and we'd like to think they're listening," said Loren Matthews, senior vice-president for programming and production at ABC Sports, before the talks. "But ultimately it's [the conferences'] ball game, and they set the rules."
In a high-stakes contest that had less to do with first downs and passing yardage than with political leverage and media savvy, Tulane University President Scott S. Cowen, leader of the outsider forces, railed last October against the consortium as an "unjust and unjustifiable" system, denying five Division 1-A conferences entry to the national championship process. Cowen and his allies took their fight all the way to Congress and raised the possibility of an antitrust lawsuit. "The threats were particularly galling," says University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer, who led the effort among the BCS conferences to reach a compromise.
Painted into a corner by their presidents, a scandal-weary lot who wanted to avoid a long public fight, the BCS commissioners agreed in May to add a fifth game, to be rotated among the current four sites, so that one of the four would host two bowls each year, perhaps two weeks apart. But TV will determine whether the new structure works financially. "We've always said this was a solution that needed to be tested in the marketplace," says Big 12 Commissioner Kevin L. Weiberg, coordinator of the BCS. "What constitutes a failed test, we aren't prepared to say."
ABC committed $300 million over eight years to renew its Rose Bowl contract in August, and the network's exclusive window with the other three games, which negotiate as a unit, extends until early November.
With college officials suggesting that the overall system must generate at least 20% more revenue per year to justify inclusion of the new game, college football faces a potentially defining moment this fall. If ABC doesn't offer enough money, and if another network isn't prepared to meet the bowls' asking price (or make a bid to share the series with ABC), the big six leagues could be forced to choose between keeping peace in the family and protecting their own rich revenue stream. That could prove to be one of the trickiest fourth-and-inches calls in history.
By Keith Dunnavant