As much as we all should probably be accustomed to a little uncertainty by now—beware anyone who expresses great conviction in the era of coronavirus; they’re either a charlatan or just plain nuts—college football’s ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they drama has left many media observers at the mercy of a sort of frantic speculation. With the status of NCAA football in doubt, there’s been a movement to cast the NFL as the savior of fall Saturdays, a role the league does not have the latitude to accept.
While recent reports suggest that the NFL might happily carve out one or two special Saturday packages for its media partners, Pete Rozelle’s ghost and the law of the land say otherwise. According to a provision in the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, the NFL is prohibited from scheduling games within 75 miles of a college football contest played “on any Saturday during the period beginning on the second Saturday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December.”
To Rozelle, the non-compete clause was a minor concession, a tiny sacrifice made for the benefit of the greater good. (Long story short, the ’61 law effectively legitimized the commissioner’s new pooled-rights deal with CBS, which in turn became the working model for the NFL’s eventual hegemonic stranglehold over network television.)
This year, the first Saturday at the NFL’s disposal falls on Dec. 19, a day in which the league has scheduled two games exclusive to NFL Network. While the participating teams and kickoff times have yet to be determined, among the Week 15 pairings eligible for those Saturday slots are Jets-Rams and Bills-Broncos. NFL Net will host a similarly-structured doubleheader on the following Saturday.
Having lost 80% of its college football inventory, Fox would benefit most from moving some of its NFL games to Saturday. The disruption transcends mere monetary considerations; Fox’s entire “Own the Fall” strategy has been devised around a four-night content bridge that kicks off with “Thursday Night Football” before advancing to its Friday WWE showcase and then two consecutive days of football. Without the Big Ten and Pac-12, Fox’s bridge has a giant, ragged hole in it.
But according to the piece of legislation signed into law 59 years ago by Pres. John F. Kennedy, the relatively limited Saturday real estate, as outlined by the December NFL Net schedule, is as much alternative space as the NFL can reasonably expect to occupy this fall.
Unless … and now here’s where things get a little sticky. Conceivably, should college football throw in the towel on the fall, the NFL would no longer be beholden to the protective prohibition. In the absence of any college games, the pros could snap up as many vacant Saturday time slots as they saw fit.
Another solution would likely cost quite a few bucks, but it wouldn’t depend on the wholesale elimination of every single college game on the fall calendar. As Rozelle did when he wanted to ensure that this TV rights deal wouldn’t be monkeyed with, certain interested parties (read: the NFL’s network partners) could petition their friends in Congress to carve out a temporary exemption for the league.
If the prospect of a network-driven lobbying effort seems somewhat far-fetched, hectoring politicos is old hat for the big media conglomerates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, NBC parent company Comcast has invested $7.46 million in Beltway lobbying efforts since the year began, making it the 11th most active influencer on a list that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Big Pharma and Raytheon.
“I don’t think they would have a hard time finding sponsors in the Senate to back a revision of the 1961 Act,” says Mike Arthur, senior VP at Veritone, which manages content licensing for the NCAA. That said, Arthur notes that it’s unlikely that the such efforts would commence until and unless the SEC, ACC and Big 12 were to join the Pac-12 and Big Ten in sitting out the fall season. In other words, the Power 5’s three holdouts would have to reverse course if a Saturday NFL slate is to reach the Congressional ear-bending phase.
As one might well expect, the NFL is keeping its own counsel on the matter; after all, nothing good could come of the league publicly speculating about college football’s fall prospects. “The only way they get to that hypothetical point is if college goes completely belly-up, and then it’s almost like they’d be rooting for it to happen,” said one media insider. “If there’s an interruption or some set of circumstances causes Saturday football to go away, then they can take the initiative. Anything that happens now looks like they’re just spiking the football.”
As Arthur sees it, the speculation about the NFL’s fall weekend plans tells him a lot about how the coronavirus has robbed us of our long-range vision. “The blast wave of a canceled season would have a devastating impact on everything that college football touches,” Arthur says. “The damage would move out in concentric circles, starting with the local economies and spreading quickly from there in a force that would impact everything and everybody…”
Which is to say, it’s perhaps wiser to survey the damage before making any further assumptions as to which group might best be able to capitalize on the destruction. “One thing I know for sure is that we’re all going to have to learn how to spell ‘force majeure’ before the year’s up,” Arthur says.