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From the couch: TV calls shots for NCAA

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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>
 
   
 

By now everybody should recognize the role TV money plays in major sports. Most of the time, though, we can focus on our favorite teams without pondering the implications of ESPN, CBS or FOX Sports anteing up billions to call the shots and help Budweiser sell mountains of suds.

Still, the recent shuffling among college football conferences provides a clear indicator of how money dictates such decisions, despite the charming insistence by school officials that it’s really all about education and the kids.

Just to recap, the Big Ten has become the Big 12, at least in a literal sense, while the Big 12 — which was nearly super-conferenced out of existence — has shrunk to 10. The Pac-10 is also now an even dozen, after the floated prospect of two 16-team monster conferences ultimately didn’t happen.

Throwing away decades of tradition, conference realignment was all about money, TV deals and the ability to launch dedicated cable channels — not because anybody really needs them, necessarily, but just because they can.

Texas, for example —  the linchpin in the not-so-Big 12’s survival — will receive a larger share of the Big 12’s TV pie and its own network. This will come as good news to those who can’t get enough of ventures like the Big Ten Network, because you can never have too many Ohio State-vs.-Iowa college field hockey matches to watch on nights when “The Daily Show” is in reruns. (Then again, CBS College Sports’ summer menu includes women’s lacrosse. Honest.)

Not to mock collegiate leaders (OK, maybe a little), but what’s truly irritating is the pretense by football powers about putting academics first.

Take Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who claimed money wasn’t behind the shake-up, but was also quoted saying his conference is in a “tremendous position” to negotiate TV deals “on par with any in the country.”

Similarly, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said new conference addition Utah is “the right fit academically and athletically” — note the order of words there — immediately after speaking the truth by saying that adding Denver and Salt Lake City will “help us as we move forward in pursuing media opportunities.”

That’s because the universities of Colorado (actually in Boulder) and Utah represent the U.S.’ 16th and 31st largest TV markets as ranked by Nielsen, reaching a combined 2.5 million households with television.

Translation: Ka-ching.

Why go through the charade of pretending administrators care more about tailbacks carrying 3.4 grade-point averages than running 4.4-second 40-yard-dashes whilst carrying a football — especially in football-mad Texas? The driving force behind all this is obvious.

 

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“The motivator is money and the issue is TV,” former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel told the New York Times. “It’s strictly about money. The presidents sit back there and they say that we’d like to have similar academic institutions and research institutions and it’s bull.”

Frankly, I once blamed the networks for perpetuating the Bowl Championship Series — a system designed to make nobody happy, except sports-radio hosts who enjoy the annual arguments. Yet I’ve talked with enough TV executives to know many understand how flawed the system is, but since the university presidents want it that way, why bother seeking change as long as the money keeps flowing?

To their credit, the pro leagues don’t even bother disguising their mercenary nature. Hell, on the June 27 season premiere of the HBO series “Entourage,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — playing himself — contemplates hiring a Hollywood talent agency to negotiate the NFL’s next TV contract and wring more money from the networks.

While Jones is doubtless good at many things, acting isn’t among them. Still, his make-believe stint offers a timely reminder that in sports the path to riches runs straight through the tube. As for spin about what’s best for “student-athletes” and “higher education,” one needn’t be a Longhorn or Cowboy to identify Texas-sized bull.

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