by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Rewind to January 1, 1965. After acquiring the rights to televise the Orange Bowl, NBC, along with the directors of the Miami event, had decided to break with tradition and move the annual New Year’s Day classic to nighttime and prime-time TV. College football fans could not believe their luck, as the New Year’s bowl lineup would now eliminate a usual early logjam involving the Orange (through 1964 an ABC property), Sugar (in those days telecast by NBC), and Cotton (a long-time CBS property until recent years) Bowls that would all take place at roughly the same time before the Rose Bowl, also telecast by NBC. Moving the Orange Bowl to the prime-time slot created an unprecedented back-to-back-to-back gridiron bonanza covering roughly 10 hours of choice holiday TV time.

The icing on the cake that New Year’s night was an instant classic Orange Bowl featuring a top-ranked and undefeated Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team, with QB Joe Namath in his final college game, against a once-beaten and fifth-ranked Texas featuring All-American LB Tommy Nobis, coached by Darrell Royal. It was a pulsating battle for the ages featuring two of the greatest programs and college coaches of all-time; in the end, thanks to a heroic goal-line stand deep in the 4th quarter that denied Namath a QB sneak on 4th down from the one-yard line, the Longhorns emerged 21-17 winners.

(As for NBC, it saw some other value in effectively cornering the New Year’s Day football market and using it to heavily promote its upcoming programming schedule, which needed a boost after falling well behind CBS in the Nielsen ratings of the day. NBC’s New Year’s strategy also created a future template used by networks that would eventually bid billions of dollars for the rights to events like the Olympics and Super Bowl, the latter still a couple of years away in 1965, to effectively do the same sort of cross-promoting that NBC first envisioned almost a half-century ago. Not to mention giving other entities like MLB the idea to move prime events, like the World Series, to nighttime. And giving pro football an idea that nighttime national TV games might work, too.)

Not everyone, however, thought that all-day football on TV was a good thing. Indeed, there was a chorus, echoed by Jack Gould, then the TV critic for the New York Times, that believed sports, and college football in particular, had finally reached a TV saturation point. “A (TV) set owner last night had visions of football...prospering to the point of extinction,” said Gould in his column the day after the ‘65 Orange Bowl thriller. “The human mind does have a saturation point. NBC, in conspirational liaison with Orange Bowl officials and the city fathers of Miami, made the longest New Year’s in the history of football.”

Of course, Gould would be proven wrong several times over throughout the succeeding years. By the early ‘80s, when colleges went to court to regain their TV rights (remember the CFA? A topic to be broached on these pages later this season), there would be at least ten hours of college football on video sets every Saturday. But there would still remain several high-placed skeptics who believed that televised sport had reached the point of no return. Even the one and only Howard Cosell, in his highly-acclaimed 1985 book, I Never Played The Game, would roughly parrot Jack Gould’s thoughts from two decades earlier, though relating his commentary to pro football. “The folks at the networks and the NFL must consider a larger and more disturbing question,” said Cosell. “Have people simply had their fill of football? In my opinion, they have.”

We at THE GOLD SHEET long dismissed the thoughts of Gould, Cosell and others who suggested that televised sport, including college football, was ever close to reaching a saturation point. There remained a vast and voracious appetite for sport (college football in particular) in the national fan base, which would continue to embrace an expansion of coverage that was further fueled by the long-overdue creation of all-sports networks, of which ESPN was merely the trailblazer when launched in late 1979.

For the first time, however, we are beginning to wonder if the Jack Goulds and Howard Cosells of years past might have had a point. There are growing indicators that the marketplace could be near full capacity on televised sport...especially college football, wherein every Saturday now in fact greatly exceeds the old late ‘60s New Year’s lineup of televised football, with the schedule now extending to games almost every weekday night for much of the season, stepping aside only on Mondays for the NFL.

Indeed, there are some warning signs of resistance in the marketplace. Cable TV providers are not as eager as before to pass along escalating costs to their clientele. Blame some of this on ESPN for the exorbitant fees it demands from cable providers; major networks such as CBS are now believing they should start asking for ESPN-type fees from cable providers, too. Which is one reason why CBS and Time Warner are now engaged in a mudslinging campaign that has temporarily banished CBS properties (including Showtime) from the Time Warner menu in many major markets.

The ever-expanding sports networks are at the center of the debate. Fox, already heavily involved with its regional sports networks and partnerships with related concerns such as The Big Ten Network and YES Network (featuring the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets), has doubled-down on sport by introducing two new networks in an attempt to further mimic ESPN. The new Fox Sports 1 and 2, which plan to heavily feature college sports, effectively replaced the Speed and Fuel channels on cable systems, but there was plenty of resistance in getting both cleared on some major cable outlets, again wary of passing ever-increasing costs to their customer bases. Indeed, Fox Sports 1 was falling well short of its targeted reach of 90 million households prior to its August 17 launch before last-minute deals were reached with Time Warner, Dish, and Direct TV, which had balked at passing along the reported 80 cents per subscriber, likely to soon rise to $1.50 per month per subscriber, to their customer bases. Only the weight of the Fox brand, including big Fox and Fox News, was able to pressure the remaining holdouts into compliance.

The cable providers, however, are not a very happy bunch, as most were thinking they could continue to carry Fox Sports 1 at the same cost as the old Speed channel it replaced. But Fox instead seems intent on replicating the ESPN model and the strong-armed tactics the “sports leader” uses in negotiating its deals.

There are other warning signs on the horizon. Some cable providers already have refused to pick up various new sports entries to the marketplace like Comcast SportsNet Houston, Pac-12 Network and Time Warner Cable SportsNet. The Pac-12 Network, in particular, remains involved in a nasty battle with Direct TV, which has refused clearance on its channels. Unlike the Big Ten Network, which has partnered with Fox, and the fledgling SEC Network, to debut in 2014 as part of the ESPN family, the Pac-12 is going it alone on its venture, which is a long way from turning into the money-spinner the league envisioned. Indeed, sources tell us that the conference is becoming increasingly wary of the mounting costs being incurred by its new network while the revenue streams continue at a trickle.

We are going to revisit this fascinating topic, and its many related storylines which relate to college football, later in September, as we look to make the fans better aware of what is going on behind the scenes in the marketplace. Because it will impact college sports fans; after all, they comprise much of the customer base that will in fact bear the increasing costs of the television sports proliferation in this ever-evolving arena.

Next week: NFL team season “wins” forecast before Part II of College Football’s New Frontier in Issue No. 3!

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