Finance & Football at the UW
school’s control, however, are three problems that threaten the NCAA entertainment machine the universities are desperate to keep in order.
A class-action antitrust lawsuit filed in federal court by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon charges that the NCAA used his image in a licensed video game without compensation, as it has done in the past for thousands of other athletes in many marketing vehicles. A number of current and former players, including basketball greats Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, are plaintiffs. In February, the NCAA lost for a third time in an attempt to get the case dismissed.
All the pro sports leagues long ago ceded the point, paying players’ unions substantial annual fees for the use of their members’ likenesses. But college players don’t have unions and, until recently, they have never had the help to challenge the NCAA’s questionable commerce.
Writing for ESPN’s Grantland.com website, longtime journalist Charles Pierce said the O’Bannon suit is the “meteor” the NCAA “never saw coming.” If it hits, and Pierce says it’s more than likely that it will, “it will be an extinction-level event for college sports as we know it.” It also could “force the development of a more equitable system in which the people who do the work get a decent share of the profits. All the profits.”
Woodward is entirely dismissive of the harm that the legal challenge may bring, partly because the NCAA successfully has fought off previous charges that it runs an inherently exploitive, plantation-style enterprise.
“There are always warnings, but look at the trends. Get objective and don’t get caught up in the hype,” he advises. “In five years, when we talk about O’Bannon, it will be as a great UCLA player, not someone driving a lawsuit. Threats come and go.”
He views more seriously the threat posed by brain trauma from repetitive blows players suffer during football’s mandatory collisions. Prompted by class-action litigation from retired players, the NFL has taken the lead, and the NCAA has followed, in attempting to make player safety a much higher priority.
“We have to do the right thing and I don’t know what it is,” Woodward notes. “Does damage come from the constant thudding or the violence of a single collision? I don’t know. Medical science doesn’t know. But they are starting to figure it out.
“Where we are today is good—being vigilant with our training and medical staffs regarding athletes and concussions. But to the parents’ question, ‘What have you done?’, I can tell them we have a lucky resource. ... Your son or daughter is going to get the best care on planet Earth right here [at UW Medical Center]. In the new stadium, we’re going to have a UW Sports Medicine clinic.”
Finally, Woodward doesn’t believe that many TV consumers who are funding monthly this more expensive enterprise are likely to turn away from the cable and satellite providers of TV content over the increasing costs of premium sports channels bundled into packages they do not want. He sees the refusal of DirecTV to carry the Pac-12 Network in its first year as less an industry tipping point and more a company playing hardball on price.
“I think there’s a great future and outlook for college football,” Woodward says. “Could there be a bubble [of hyperinflated rights fees passed on to consumers]? Absolutely. Are we prepared for it? Absolutely.
“I don’t see [a consumer backlash]. I wouldn’t want to be in the TV entertainment business with TiVo, On Demand and the other tools that cut out advertising and allow playback anytime.
“For sports, you have to watch our product live; you can no longer escape the information about the game and outcome. When people turn it on, they flock. It’s appointment TV and that will never change. That’s what ESPN and Fox Sports [the Pac-12 Network’s primary national partners] are paying for.” —Art Thiel