Four decades ago, most of the sports television universe consisted of the three New York-based networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC. Sounds very simple, right?
Exclusivity was a very big deal to each of networks, and the competition was fierce.
The genesis of the deal that brought the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship to CBS was in another negotiation some eight years earlier. The transformative sequence of events in 1973 saw the NBA rights stunningly move from ABC to CBS, and ABC’s resulting decision to create a Sunday afternoon bundle of Superstars and a new Sunday edition of Wide World of Sports.
NBC Sports responded by trying to make a first and second quarter slate out of NHL Hockey and World Championship Tennis, but both had competitive ratings problems, and were not very popular with the all-important affiliated stations around the country. So what did NBC do? After a couple of years, it rolled the dice on college basketball, which had long been considered a weaker, regional sport without enough “national appeal.”
NBC’s commitment was not a strong one. It opted for an inexpensive regional/national programming partnership with TVS Sports and its syndicated Rubik’s Cube of regional college games created by New Jersey entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn, supplemented by assorted national matchups.
The History and the NCAA Tournament
Einhorn had bought the rights to a much-anticipated 1968 matchup between #1 UCLA and #2 Houston, and more so UCLA’s Lou Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar) against Houston’s Elvin Hayes. While there was great anticipation and 52,693 eventually elbowed their way into the Astrodome, traditional network television had no interest in carrying the telecast. So Einhorn and TVS had to clear the broadcast through syndication.
As for NBC, the unusual regional/national combination was not an instant hit, but it had no other place to go on first quarter weekends, so it plugged along for several years. By then, college basketball was adding TV fans.
In 1969, NBC was the first of the legacy networks to buy the rights to NCAA Final Four and a few other tournament games, and this all culminated in the then-highest-rated college telecast ever – the serendipitous matchup of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979. The NBC game trio of Dick Enberg. Billy Packer and Al McGuire was a great listen, and college basketball was gathering steam as a TV property. Einhorn and NBC had tied up regular season rights for both conferences and independent schools, and they gradually expanded their NCAA Championship coverage to 11 games per year – all on weekends. College hoops was really beginning to work on television.
CBS takes an interest in the NCAA Tournament
When I joined CBS Sports in 1973, it was a network of professional sports. My boss, the popular sports figure Bill MacPhail, wanted me to work on the programming of the NFL, the NBA, golf, tennis, the CBS Sports Spectacular, assorted special events, and “in your spare time, spend time with the important people in college sports – we need to get in there.” He wasn’t kidding, and for seven years I went to every convention, Final Four and bowl game possible. Bill’s closest friend in that area was Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke, who was helpful to a network on the outside looking in. He was a reliable source of good advice.
In December of 1981, Carl Lindemann, who was working at CBS Sports after a long career at NBC, was told that NBC was struggling to renew its basketball tournament deal with the NCAA. We verified this in a couple of different ways, and our relatively new boss, Van Gordon Sauter, was persuaded that even though we were the network of the NBA, we could make a play for the rights.
We were obviously mindful that the NCAA probably just wanted a stalking horse to force NBC to increase its rights offer, but Sauter relished the challenge and wanted to make an aggressive move. He tended to the most important internal gatekeepers while a few of us put together an attack on some of NBC’s shortcomings, and a proposal that was bolder that anything we thought we could really sell. But the chance that we would get a shot was slim, indeed.
The problem NBC had was the NCAA’s longtime Executive Director, Walter Byers. Walter was a cantankerous, cowboy-booted, eccentric, petulant, whip-smart little contrarian who was not fond of New Yorkers in pinstripe suits.
He was aware that NBC was doing better financially with the Tournament, and he wanted to make a deal that would finally work for the NCAA. The senior NBC executive at the table was Art Watson, and he and Walter came to an impasse over a few hundred thousand dollars. Watson was dealing with the fact that every NCAA contract under Byers had only a First Negotiation position – never a First Refusal– but he dug in and let things go too far. Walter Byers started the 30-day FN clock and wouldn’t budge.
In New York, we were getting ready for a longshot that we thought would never come – surely NBC would cave on such a small amount, and make a deal. But every experienced negotiator knows that you never get to the point where your biggest obstacle is your own intractablity.
Watson didn’t give in and we got the call telling us we had an appointment in Kansas City. I learned a bit later that the NCAA staff was more shocked than we were.
We had kept our group small, dressed down, and were deferential as hell. Across the table were Byers, his Assistant Executive Director Tom Jernstedt, outgoing Tournament Chair Wayne Duke, and incoming Chair Dave Gavitt (father of current NCAA’s Sr. VP, Basketball, Dan Gavitt). It was tense – no one knew if this wasn’t a fools’ errand. Duke welcomed us and explained where they were, and kind of invited Van Sauter to respond. And he did.
Van was, in most ways, the antithesis of a network executive. He had a tie that was not fussy; he had shaggy hair and a shaggy full beard, and he was often rumpled, but he was as articulate as could be, and he had a voice like Moses on the Mount. He said something like, “Gentlemen, you don’t have any reason to know who we are, but we are grateful to be here. I don’t know as much about sports as I’m sure I should, but my guys know everything we need to know. We can do some things for you that we don’t think NBC can, and we want to lay them out for you. If that’s the only chance we get, well, so be it.”
Byers, from the beginning, was fascinated by Sauter’s directness and almost reckless candor. He had certainly never had a network sports head apologize for an inadequate knowledge of sports, and been told that if he said “no” right away, that was OK, too.
Then we laid out our plan, making these points:
- NBC ‘s 11-game commitment was too small. We would start with 16 exposures, and increase it from there, as the event grew.
- Fans didn’t understand the bracket because NBC only did weekend games. CBS would be on the air with the Tournament on every scheduled day.
- Late-night Thursday and Friday night games would capture all the first-round action. NBC couldn’t do it -The Tonight Show was sacrosanct.
- Our high-profile studio show was to be the stylistic production model for explaining the bracket and the whole three-The NFL Todayweek event.
- The talented and experienced Brent Musburger would direct traffic on the air- which made it all seem more doable.
- Every game we covered would have live cut-in pre, half, and postgame coverage, complete with features about the Tournament.
- Absolute confidentiality was the key to the selection show – the whole country would find out the bracket together live – no leaking.
- The selection show would become “a national news event” from the Committee’s HQ in Kansas City
- We would put on the selection show completely live at 6:00 pm from Kansas City – right in front of 60 Minutes- TV’s #1 show.
- CBS would create a regular season package that started in December, an earlier promotional start for college basketball.
There were other points, but these were the competitive bases of our proposal; bigger and clearer for the viewer.
We were pitching the NCAA folks on some things that weren’t exactly on their radar, but it seemed that they all responded to coverage of greater scope, and the bracket emphasis and the studio whip-around model really had their attention. As we explained each item in more detail, Byers started to talk about another meeting, and the temperature in the room went up. We were over the first hurdle.
The next few weeks were a blur of both good and bad ideas to fulfill what we had promised. The Affiliate Relations people at CBS jumped on board and the salespeople knew selling NBA and NCAA separately in the first quarter would be a bit of a nightmare, but a lot of them were college hoops fans, and that helped a lot. Our in-house Telco folks looked at the networking needs of CBS and NCAA Productions and gasped, but ultimately, they said, “We can do it.”
I was fearful about the regular season schedule issue. With TVS and NBC controlling 95% of the major game inventory, we could be promising the undeliverable. But some research confirmed that most of their contracts were for the conference season only. So December games became a lifeline, even though our sales folks would not be enthusiastic. And there were some independent schools that could deliver some middle-level attractions – but it would be tight. That issue was very big, but for the moment, the conference commissioners on the NCAA’s committee were curiously quiet.
We were in constant contact with Tom Jernstedt, and we had the sense that Dave Gavitt was a “possible” for our side; Duke was diplomatically reticent, and Byers was inscrutable. NBC had another meeting in Kansas City – we held our breath, but no announcement was forthcoming.
Ultimately, we trooped to an unlikely spot for the conclusion of all this – the dusty O’Hare Hilton, where our little group spent hours in a suite staring at each other, (the part of negotiating fun no one talks about) while NBC and the NCAA jousted down the hall. After another lengthy session, we agreed to a commitment to do 16 regular season games, whistling past the graveyard the whole time. Walter Byers went for a couple of further last-minute concessions (his trademark), and we settled on a three-year deal from 1982-84 for $16 million per year (NBC had been paying about $ 9 million)…….No, I’m not making that up.
Against all odds, CBS Sports was going dancing.
Now, The Hard Part
We wrote the press release in the hotel bar, phoned it in to Kansas City and New York, and waited for the reaction from the unsuspecting world of college sports. It didn’t take long.
By the next day, the revolt was starting, with NBC fanning the flames. The NBC/TVS conference schools and independents were all prodded to tell the NCAA that this mistake had to be undone – the 1981 NCAA Tournament was starting the next week, and the clan would be gathering at various sites around the country – this deal had to be stopped!
I spent the next few weeks at various tournament sites, and was sometimes turned away at conference meetings or castigated in hotel lobbies by people I’d had a drink with two months earlier. I went with Neal Pilson, our in-house head of business affairs, to South Bend to meet with Notre Dame Athletic Moderator Fr. Edmund Joyce and AD Gene Corrigan, to convince them that they had to allow their road opponents’ games to be sold to CBS by the home teams.
This was a critical issue, and after hours of waiting, we were told that their lawyers had told them that the visiting teams had no choice – and the principle of Home Team TV Rule was cemented for good in college basketball – a very big day indeed.
The Basketball Committee members were helping us behind the scenes; they liked the changes we offered – and the pressure started to subside. We started to talk seriously to Jernstedt and Gavitt about what the future might bring, and listened to their ideas about expanding March Madness to 64 teams.
In the meantime, we scrambled to make that regular season schedule. Six games that TVS couldn’t grab in December gave us Notre Dame-Kentucky, Michigan-Arkansas, and some other attractive matchups.
CBS’ indefatigable Len DeLuca worked tirelessly on first quarter games, and with the help of UNLV, South Carolina, West Virginia and others, the small pillars of the schedule went up. We put DePaul-Louisville on the day after Christmas and it would eventually garner the biggest regular season rating of the year. Hey, it wasn’t pretty – but we had kept our promise.
A sidelight: at the Mideast Regional in Bloomington, a mutual friend brought me a note from Bob Knight, who was in the midst of winning his second national title. Improbably, Bob had decided to give up coaching for a new idea – he wanted to be our #1 Analyst. I sent a note back saying we could talk after Indiana’s season was over, but this was an extraordinary development. After Indiana won on that memorable March night in Philadelphia, I went to Bloomington and the courtship of Bob Knight began. It lasted for months; Knight was serious, and he had the full support of his wife, Nancy, and his best friend, the great coach Pete Newell. They both felt the move would be good for Bob personally. He came to New York and met our senior management, and a contract was drawn up. Later, our talent coup was short-circuited when Indiana’s Landon Turner was critically injured in an accident, and Bob pulled out. But it was an interesting summer.
But we were coming into a situation where we would inevitably be compared to NBC’s success in the sport. Our first year had to be as solid as possible.
Billy Packer had been patient. We didn’t contact him because of the Knight situation, but he had known something was afoot. When we turned to him, it was a perfect solution for our team. We needed solid experience in the business, a guy who really knew the game, and an advocate in the sport for our larger effort. Billy was all of those, and a good friend to all. We teamed him with Gary Bender, a talented pro who had been our choice the year before to help to develop a new football analyst named John Madden. Gary had the right stuff.
Our production team was led by Rick Sharp, a real up-and-comer and a gentleman who knew the game and had everything buttoned-up. Tragically, Rick died much too soon a few years later. The man in the middle seat was future Hall of Famer Bob Fishman, whose huge directing talent would be showcased through decades of Final Fours. Along with Brent and Gary and Billy, the announce group from the beginning, featured future legends like Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery – not bad for our first effort.
Our lead group had its first production meeting in Chicago in October. Before the meeting, Len DeLuca called from New York and said our salespeople wanted an umbrella name for all of the Tournament programming. I looked out the hotel window where rain was falling on Michigan Avenue and said, “Lenny – it’s The Road….the bracket is The Road….and we’re taking the fans on The Road to the Final.” It’s funny where some things come from, and how long they hang around.
Our first season began in Fayetteville in late November, and ended with the memorable final game in New Orleans where two freshmen named Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan showed us all what the next chapter would look like. Our first Tournament improbably got the Emmy for Best Sports Production, and it shines brightly on the wall, even now.
Nonstop sessions with Tom Jernstedt and Dave Gavitt continued, and their vision for a 64-team NCAA Championship came into being with CBS as a very active contributing partner. Hundreds of CBS people in many roles have been a big part in making it all work. It is in the nature of this event that I am confident that their pride is the same that we felt that night in 1982.
CBS added two more three-year contracts, 1985-87 at $27 million per and 1988-90 at $55 million per year. In 1989, CBS signed a seven-year contract for the tournament and 16 other championships beginning in 1991. The bill was $1 billion.
CBS and Turner
From 2008-11, I was pleased to serve as one of two consultants to the NCAA as we put together a 14-year deal to bring March Madness into the new world of sports television, where Turner’s cable combination with the CBS over-the-air tradition produced an unlikely duo that should last a long time. CBS’ Sean McManus and Turner’s David Levy put together a great partnership where no one thought it was possible. At the time, that $10.8 billion deal was the largest in television history. I’m not making that up either.
A year after the first NCAA basketball deal, the CBS relationship with college sports had expanded when we procured half of the NCAA Football TV plan that was previously held only by ABC. This was the start of a long return to college football that put CBS where we all wanted them to be. It also prompted us to hire a host for our college football pregame show, a young fellow named Jim Nantz, who added to his own legend this past Saturday night on Gonzaga-UCLA.
Monday night, as Jim, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill take their seats at the announce position in Indianapolis, I’m sure they will be greeted by the NCAA’s top man at the Tournament….Dan Gavitt.
We are all connected in the Madness.