In 1980, the year Herschel Walker arrived in Athens and Georgia won the national championship, the Bulldogs had only two regular-season games televised, one nationally and one regionally.
That was near the end of college football’s less-is-more era, during which the NCAA limited schools to a maximum of six televised games — no more than four of them national — in any two-year period.
The era ended June 27, 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court, affirming lower-court decisions in an antitrust lawsuit filed almost three years earlier by the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents and the University of Georgia Athletic Board, effectively stripped the NCAA of authority over football TV contracts. The ruling allowed each school or conference to cut its own deal.
“By curtailing output [of telecasts] and blunting the ability of member institutions to respond to consumer preferences,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “the NCAA has restricted rather than enhanced the place of intercollegiate athletics in the Nation’s life.”
The ruling, along with the growth of cable television, led to today’s ubiquity of college football on TV. This season, more than 500 games across the nation will be televised. Last school year, each SEC school received a record $17.4 million from the conference, most of that generated by TV deals.
The 1980s lawsuit “opened up the gates for all the big money from TV rights, there’s no question about that,” said Bob Bishop, a member of the UGA Athletic Board then and now. But Bishop, a retired Athens bank president, also recalls having misgivings about suing an organization of which Georgia was a member.
“I didn’t like getting involved in suing the NCAA,” he said. “I wasn’t a litigious-type person, and I’m still not. But that was a long time ago, and it evidently worked out good.”
Georgia, Oklahoma and other schools that supported the lawsuit “felt the NCAA was just too dominant, which it was,” recalled Vince Dooley, UGA’s athletic director and head football coach at the time. “The NCAA had this incredible power and was really not fulfilling the wishes of the members.”
The NCAA argued that TV appearances should be limited because of concern about attendance — or, as Stevens wrote, “a fear that the product will not prove sufficiently attractive to draw live attendance when faced with competition from televised games.”
“Even a lot of us who were involved” in suing the NCAA, Dooley recalled, “were concerned about: Would this end up devaluing the game? Would it be too many games on TV? Would it have the effect of hurting ticket sales? Would it be overexposure?”
As it turned out, “it has stimulated more people to become passionate football fans, if anything,” Dooley said.
College football set attendance records in four consecutive seasons before a 1 percent dip last year to 48.3 million.
But the landmark case led, for good or bad, to constantly shifting game times, weeknight games and conference expansions.
The case grew out of the College Football Association, or CFA, an organization formed in the late 1970s to represent major football programs within the NCAA bureaucracy. Oklahoma and Georgia brought the suit because the lead lawyer was based in Oklahoma and the CFA president was also UGA’s president (Fred Davison). The schools’ argument was that they were losing money because the NCAA limited TV appearances and illegally fixed prices for them.
A federal district court in Oklahoma City agreed, finding the NCAA’s TV monopoly operated as a “classic cartel” and violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The ruling was upheld by a circuit Court of Appeals and, ultimately, by the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision.
For the next decade, most major football programs (except those in the Big Ten and Pac-10) jointly negotiated TV contracts through the CFA, which dissolved in 1995. College football’s TV revenue actually declined for a number of years after the lawsuit because supply exceeded network demand, but the growth of cable networks eventually fueled demand. Now, most TV deals are negotiated by conferences, with member schools sharing the revenue.
This fall, all 12 UGA games will be televised — 10 more than in that special season 30 years ago.