What Has the CFA Lost?

Author: Kevin Guilfoile ’90

Editor’s Note: Notre Dame home football games have been broadcast on NBC for 30 years now, peacock logos as familiar a campus fixture on fall Saturdays as shamrock face paint and Solo cups. But when the University and the network announced the deal in 1990, pearls were clutched throughout the sport. In our latest Magazine Classic, Kevin Guilfoile ’90, a senior at the time, tries to soothe the vapors.

When someone asked Penn State Coach Joe Paterno about the television deal between Notre Dame and NBC, he replied, “It’s been a fun year. We got to see Notre Dame go from an academic institution to a banking institute.” This was the Joe Paterno who saw his school abandon the Eastern Independents for the Big Ten over Christmas break.

Georgia head coach Vince Dooley was even more blunt: “Surprise. Shock. Greed,” he said; “that’s the reaction I’m getting from people.” Never mind that the University of Georgia joined Oklahoma in 1984 to initiate a restraint-of-trade suit against the NCAA that paved the way for the NBC-Notre Dame deal.

A lot of others, some of whose houses are not so fragile, have been also throwing rocks since the news broke in January. Even some students and faculty have been reluctant to lend support to the University.

The conflict, we are told, is between green-with-greed Notre Dame and the poor, poor College Football Association — with the indigent ABC caught pitifully in the middle. But before lodging blame under the golden dome, let’s take a more objective look at the cast of characters.

Irish detractors cry about the “unprecedented” backstabbing of the CFA. In fact, the precedent was set by the CFA itself when it broke from the NCAA to negotiate its own TV deal. And it was the CFA’s bungling of its recent contract with ABC that forced Notre Dame’s hand.

ABC, which already had the Big 10 and Pac 10 conferences under contract, agreed to pay $210 million for the CFA contract, starting in 1991. It doesn’t take a math major to realize that a network holding contracts with 84 schools, all playing on the same day, is probably in over its head. The result of this logjam prompted ABC to plan on broadcasting four or five games regionally each Saturday. Most schools are accustomed to such coverage, but to expect acquiescence from Notre Dame, with alumni from coast to coast, is ludicrous.

The Irish have blazed no new trails with the NBC contract; they’re merely maintaining the status quo. Last season, 12 of 13 Irish football games were shown live on national TV, seven of them broadcast by one of the three “free” networks. All the NBC deal guarantees is that, beginning in 1991, six Irish home games will be carried on the network (compared to the three or four regional broadcasts that would have been probably under the ABC/CFA deal). The CFA still holds rights to Notre Dame’s games on the road.

Nor, despite the smoke being blown by college coaches, is there any danger of all the major football powers striking similar deals and creating some sort of evil gridiron empire. What made the NBC deal possible was Notre Dame’s unique appeal. Other schools, including Miami, have tried to bait the networks, but none is biting.

Nbc Camera Cashore
Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Another sort of criticism of the ND-NBC contract is equally puzzling. Norman Chad of The National and others have written that “NBC’s telecasts will help Notre Dame recruit better athletes.” One columnist in the Notre Dame student newspaper went so far as to claim “the parity of college football is at stake.” Why wasn’t that an issue last season? Or the season before? No matter who’s doing the broadcasting, the Irish cannot be on TV any more frequently than they have been of late. Notre Dame also managed to pick from the nation’s top players back when C, F and A were just letters in the alphabet, and no one cried then about “cornering the market.”

Most importantly, let’s remember what the University is gaining. Although no numbers have been announced, it has been estimated that as much as $23 million — all the revenue that does not go to opposing schools — will be used for student aid at Notre Dame. This is money that’s desperately needed to help the University make good on its pledge to help students who have had to borrow themselves into indentured servitude to attend school here — and to open the University’s doors wider to talented applicants with minimal resources.

As a bonus, there’s the prospect of seeing most home games played in the afternoon sunshine.

Those who are still bent out of shape and claim the University should have let its intentions be known earlier need indulge no surprise or shock. Notre Dame’s financial dealings have always been closely guarded secrets. Since the business world is governed, thankfully, by the laws of Adam Smith and not the chivalry of Camelot, Notre Dame was under no obligation to pass around a press release until the deal was done. Father Bill Beauchamp spelled out the University’s reservations in a letter to the CFA in October, long before the athletic department talks began.

If we still insist on ferreting out greed in all this, why not start with ABC? That network took a bath last season when its Big 10 and Pac 10 schedule went up against CFA games, so it came up with the money to keep Saturday football off other networks. ABC’s interest was never in increasing the exposure of college football but in decreasing it — for its own purposes.

As for the CFA, it had offers from CBS and NBC that would have maintained national exposure for college football, but it sold out to ABC for the money. And let’s not forget that CFA’s executive director, Chuck Neinas, in his haste to close a $300 million deal, somehow forget to tell the network that neither Notre Dame no Miami had yet agreed to the contract.

If the dollar is now calling the shots in the Notre Dame athletic department, as critics charge, then where are the Gatorade banners in the stadium? Where is the Reebok DiamondVision in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center? Why were the Irish the only bowl team not wearing sponsorship patches the last two New Years?

It is not because those things were never offered.

When these reflections were published, adapted from a version that had appeared in The Observer, Kevin Guilfoile was a senior majoring in American studies.