One Game Closer To A College Superbowl?

For more than four decades, the business of college football was a no-brainer: The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. cut all the television deals. Period. All that changed in 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court in effect deregulated the industry and allowed competing alliances, or even individual schools, to negotiate their own TV packages. The College Football Assn., a confederation of 63 major colleges, immediately ran out and made a deal of its own. So did a joint venture of the Big Ten and Pac-10. As a result, armchair fans can channel-surf their way through a dozen or more games every Saturday.

But the real revolution came in 1990, when the University of Notre Dame cut a deal with the NBC television network. For the first time, an individual school negotiated directly with a network. The message to other college athletic programs was clear: From then on, financial self-interest would govern the way football programs are administered.

HIGHER PROFILE. The lesson wasn't lost on Southeastern Conference Commissioner Roy Kramer. In late 1990, he sat down with the athletic directors of the 10 schools that at the time made up the SEC and set about plotting the future. Would they bolt the CFA, robbing it of some of its greatest TV draws and throwing the game into further chaos? No, Kramer & Co. hit upon an even better idea--a postseason conference championship match. The game, set for Dec. 5, is fast shaping up as a preview of college football's future.

It's now clear that the SEC leaders have devised a strategy to raise the conference's profile and give its member schools a financial edge. The key elements: making conference games attractive as stand-alone TV properties and creating a marquee matchup that will rake in big bucks almost immediately.

To accomplish its goals, the SEC cleverly exploited an obscure NCAA rule. In the early 1960s, the NCAA, which still regualtes university football programs, passed a statute allowing conferences with 12 or more members to split into two divisions and hold a play-off to determine the conference champ. In 1990, the SEC was the first alliance of major schools to take advantage of the rule. It grew to 12 teams by luring the University of Arkansas away from the Southwest Conference and bringing in independent South Carolina. "We're simply taking advantage of something that's on the books," says Kramer.

When the first SEC championship game is played at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., it will pit the winner of the conference's Eastern Div. (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt) against the champion of the Western Div. (Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Louisiana State, Mississippi, and Mississippi State). If the play-off succeeds as promised, other conferences are likely to find ways to set up postseason championships of their own. "No question, everyone is watching that SEC play-off game," says Richard D. Schultz, executive director of the NCAA. "There's so much financial pressure on colleges these days. And this is another way to make money. If this idea works, I think a lot of the conferences will look at" copying it.

The Birmingham Football Foundation, a group of local business leaders, won the right to stage the game. It outbid groups from Atlanta, Orlando, and Memphis by assembling a plan that requires most ticketholders to make a tax-deductible contribution of as much as $750 in addition to the $30 ticket price. With the game still almost three months away, only a few thousand tickets remain unsold.

A sellout would guarantee an $8.5 million haul for the SEC, including $1.5 million from the ABC television network. Among major bowl games, only the Rose Bowl, at $12.8 million, boasts a higher payout. The SEC member schools will split most of the take equally.

`CHANGING TOO FAST.' Not surprisingly, many college sports administrators outside the SEC have dollar signs dancing in their eyes. Still, most of them are glad they didn't have to blaze the trail. "I think the SEC jumped ahead of the curve," says Ohio State football coach John Cooper. "Change is fine, but I'm afraid we might be changing too fast." All the same, Cooper's Big Ten Conference is watching. By adding Penn State to its ranks this year, it needs only one more team to hold its own play-off.

More conference reshuffling is a near-certainty. "The SEC has started the ball rolling, and I don't think we can stop it," says Jack Lengyel, athletic director at the U.S. Naval Academy. It probably won't stop with conference play-offs, either. Says the NCAA's Schultz: "If everyone is going to follow the SEC and hold a conference play-off, then a national play-off would be an obvious extension. Sooner or later, financial matters will dictate it." Financial matters, it seems, now dictate almost everything about college football.

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