McCall: TV runs college football into ditch

Jeffrey M. McCall

The clock has run out on another college football season, so it’s time for the powers that be to assess the condition of the product. If they are smart, college presidents will acknowledge the golden goose might be starting to gasp for air. They should also check to see if they have any souls left, having sold said souls to the money tossed their way by television.

The football bowl season, including the oversold four-team playoff, failed to garner the public’s enthusiastic support. Viewer ratings for the Clemson-Alabama title game were down an estimated 15 percent from last year’s final, even with a tightly contested game. The semifinal playoff games suffered 34 percent ratings declines from last year. Let’s face it, the made-for-TV four-team playoff hasn’t settled the long running college football title debate.

The legendary Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl each suffered their worst ratings since before the turn of the century. Forty bowl games were played, many in front of sparse crowds

Attendance during the regular season slumped for the fifth consecutive year. Empty seats were obvious at venues where traditional powers once filled stadiums with devoted fans, including Texas and Florida State. Even at Notre Dame, where every home game has sold out since 1973, tickets were still available on the Friday before the playoff-contending Irish hosted Wake Forest in November.

Big payouts from television have wrestled control of college football away from university administrators. Even the NCAA has no role in the bowl system. Thus, television executives have hijacked decisions regarding the playoff format, start times of games, dates on which games will be played, and so on.

ESPN is paying out $5.5 billion over 12 years to broadcast the four-team playoff and major bowls. Many other billions are paid out for regular season games. With that money comes power, and colleges have surrendered their products, athletes and alumni to the video power brokers.

University administrators talk about concern for athletes’ health and academics, but allow for 15-game, TV-fueled schedules that increase chances for injuries and diminish time for academics.

Even the FCS playoff, which features smaller Division I programs, dragged out its playoff series from Nov. 28 until the title game on Jan. 9 to accommodate TV. North Dakota State and Jacksonville State waited three weeks from their semifinal wins to play the championship game.

Colleges have professionalized players by giving them separate dining and living spaces, full tuition, and now pocket money stipends of several thousand dollars. TV announcers for the bowl games focused on NFL prospects of the players and speculated about who would leave college early for the pros. On-screen crawls for many telecasts featured NFL draft scouting reports for players on the field. No mention of any dean’s list player who might be heading to law school.

Sadly, what is promoted as “college” football has little to do with college any more. College presidents need to hit the weight room to muscle up and take control of their institutions’ most visible products.

Jeffrey M. McCall is professor of communication at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana.