The National Broadcasting Company's announcement three weeks ago that it will televise some 90 college basketball games beginning next November seems to have gone by the sporting and entertainment press like Nolan Ryan's fastball. Consequently, the ramifications of the decision may have been lost on most sports fans.
For months it had been widely assumed that NBC would buy American Basketball Association games in one form or another. Even the ABA expected this, and when NBC made a deal with college basketball instead it damaged the ABA's credibility and indicated, at least for the present, that no matter how many colors the ABA has on its basketball, it is still a minor league.
More significantly, NBC is the television leader in live sports coverage. Of 150 top-rated live sporting events shown during the last 10 years, NBC has carried 100, CBS 44 and ABC six. Thus NBC's decision to go into college basketball cannot be taken lightly. Professional basketball has been on national television since the 1953-54 season, with a two-year lapse in 1962-64 due to low ratings. College basketball did not show up nationally until January of 1968, with the Houston-UCLA (Elvin Hayes-Lew Alcindor) game. But contrary to some big-city opinion, college basketball is far more appealing to the public. Surprisingly, no professional game has ever been rated among the top three televised basketball events, and of the top 10 basketball games ever shown on national television, only three were professional. Indeed, this year's pro playoffs will probably turn out to be an overall ratings disaster for CBS—more people, for some reason, watched regular-season games on CBS than have watched the playoffs.
Weekly college coverage began in the 1967-68 season on TVS, then an independent network but now part of the Corinthian Broadcasting Corporation. TVS has had a virtual lock on college games ever since, and NBC had to go to them for the rights. TVS was willing to do business, though nobody will say for how much. Basketball contracts, unlike those for college football, are agreements reached between TVS President Eddie Einhorn and the various conferences and independent teams; no Walter Byers negotiates them until the NCAA playoffs come up. (NBC already had, and retains, the rights to the finals and semifinals for another year.)
Alan Lubell, the 36-year-old executive vice-president of TVS, played a part in the negotiations of the agreement between NBC and TVS, and it must have given him considerable satisfaction. In 1969 Lubell tried to sell Madison Avenue on college basketball and it wasn't easy. "Every time I went into somebody's office," he said last week, "they would excuse themselves and go off to a New York Knick game. They didn't know anything about college basketball. When I told them that colleges were building new facilities, that places were sold out weeks in advance for major college games, they thought I was mad."
TVS finally did sell commercials, of course, and kept expanding until it had a 103-game schedule last season, distributed primarily on a regional basis. Many of NBC's affiliates carried eight national games, most of them as parts of doubleheaders. This year NBC will be putting on 10 such doubleheaders, producing the national games while TVS handles the regional ones.
TVS is a familiar network to most of the nation not only for its college basketball coverage but also for World Football League games. The network made money covering the WFL last year but, according to Lubell, "We felt our credibility going down as the league's did." TVS started the WFL season with 100 stations, but by mid-season that number was down into the 60s.
TVS now holds an option to pick up the WFL if there is a second season, but it is highly doubtful that it will. "The problem with the WFL," Lubell says, "was that every time it got caught lying it compounded the situation by telling more lies. In many ways it got a lot of publicity; Gary Davidson, the WFL commissioner, told me he estimated that all the early national publicity was worth $20 million. The bad publicity he never talked about, but that was worth at least a minus $40 million. While we have the option, I doubt that we will ever find a reason to use it. Maybe a new pro football league can go, but it would have to prove that by itself. When I talk to advertising people about the possibility, they just look at me."
The one thing TVS will not lose by joining up with NBC is credibility. And the one thing it has certainly gained is money. Whatever the rights went for, there is also the fact that the major networks can transmit games much more cheaply than independents. Over the upcoming season it would cost TVS about $500,000 more—for the installation of telephone lines—than it will cost NBC, and Einhorn has good enough eyesight to see farther down the road. And finally, "I have a feeling," says NBC sports head Carl Lindemann Jr., "that the ratings will be good. We have 250 stations we might be able to use. TVS had about 170."
What will be interesting to see is how vigorously NBC is willing to promote college basketball. Just a little bit of help might give the network a real winner, and there is no reason to think NBC does not plan to come across with it. "We believe that live events are the way to go," says Lindemann, getting in a dig at ABC. "We are not going to change and go for rip-offs. We still feel that live sports are what people want, and we intend to stick to that decision."