Anatomy of a powerhouse: Television upends kickoff traditions while raising revenues
Editor's note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience. Today: Television
Rick Bay remembers the disapproving letters.
Thirty-five years ago, as he helped pave the way for the first night football game to be held at Ohio Stadium, they arrived at the Ohio State athletic director’s office.
“You got the sense that people thought it was a terrible idea,” Bay said in a phone interview last week. “I think it more or less violated the tradition of afternoon starting times.”
Ohio State had played in the early afternoon on fall Saturdays for almost a century, a seemingly fixed time slot that offered a familiar routine for spectators.
But as the season opened in 1985, the Buckeyes hosted Pittsburgh in a game that began much later. Kickoff came at 8:08 p.m. In order to stage the contest after the sun faded, portable lights were installed at the stadium.
It remains a watershed moment in the Buckeyes’ history as one of the earliest instances when a television contract dictated when a football game at the Horseshoe would start.
The development was triggered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling the previous year that allowed schools and conferences to negotiate their own TV deals.
In a 7-2 decision, the court found limits placed by the NCAA on the number of games available for television to be in violation of federal antitrust laws, handing a victory to Georgia and Oklahoma, the two schools who first brought the case.
“It was a dramatic change,” said Bay, who was hired as the Buckeyes’ athletic director only a month before the landmark 1984 decision was announced.
The Big Ten formed new agreements for the following seasons, which included asking teams to host at least one night game each fall. Bay agreed to hold one in Columbus.
As much as they upended tradition, it was an enticing tradeoff.
The freedom to make agreements with networks would lead to millions of dollars in revenue to flow into the league for distribution among its members over the following decades.
Annual media rights payouts now approach $50 million for schools after the conference reached a six-year deal with ESPN and Fox in 2017, an agreement that was widely reported to be worth $2.64 billion. A portion comes from the Big Ten Network, the conference’s channel that is jointly owned by Fox.
As part of the lucrative deals, kickoff times continue to be set by the networks, which have televised every Ohio State football game since 1997.
“We sold our souls when television money became that important,” Bay said, “in the sense that schools don't control their own starting times anymore, they don't control their own scheduling. We want the big bucks, but to get the big bucks, you have to give television everything that it wants.”
The returns were modest at first. In his memoir, “From the Buckeyes to the Bronx,” Bay recalled the early payouts received by Ohio State were about $700,000 following the deregulation of TV contracts.
It was roughly the same figure that schools received through the NCAA-controlled agreements in the previous years.
“We certainly didn’t make what Georgia and Oklahoma thought each of us would generate when they filed their lawsuit, mistakenly assuming that in a free market, without NCAA restrictions, they could sell their games in their own markets for much more than they were receiving from their shares of the national package,” Bay wrote. “Actually, just the opposite occurred, at least temporarily.”
Bay thought schools were restricted by the landscape. A buyer’s market emerged, he added.
But revenues shot up by 1989 when schools assigned all of their media rights to the Big Ten for negotiation on their behalf. It landed deals with ABC and ESPN.
“The conference could then bundle those rights, serve as a single-point marketer and sell those rights,” said Mark Rudner, a former senior associate commissioner for the Big Ten. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Rudner said the conference conducted research at the time that showed it to be more lucrative for it to negotiate TV contracts on behalf of all of the schools.
“They just went back to an old sort of marketing principle, that if we had everybody's rights, we would do much better than if each institution had the right to sell their rights on their own,” Rudner said. “And it was shown to be true. It's a lot easier to go to the market if you have Ohio State and Michigan and Michigan State and Iowa TV rights than if you go to the market and have each of them individually try to sell.”
Through the growth of television revenue, the size of athletic departments such as Ohio State grew. Its annual operating budgets has hovered around $200 million in recent years.
After the yearly ticket sales, fueled by a rabid fan base that can fill a 100,000-seat stadium, media rights revenue is the biggest source of income for the department. For some schools in the conference, it’s the biggest money-maker.
The flood of cash has led to increased coaching salaries. Former Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer made $7.6 million in his last season in 2018. Ryan Day, who succeeded Meyer last year, makes above $5 million this year.
It also enables the Buckeyes to sponsor 36 varsity sports team, more than any other major conference athletics program.
The influx traces its root to the mid-1980s and the highest court in the land. But Rudner thought it was only a matter of time before TV revenues matriculated into college sports and ushered in the sport’s modern era.
“Had deregulation not happened in 1984, it would have happened at some point,” Rudner said. “Because institutions beyond Georgia and Oklahoma, which filed the original lawsuit, which led to deregulation, would have said, 'You know, we need to do something. Our brand is powerful and valuable and we want to maximize that to the best that we can.' ”