Commentary

If College Athletes Are Ruled TV Performers, How Will Rules For TV Sports Deals Change?

Now that the NBA Finals -- one of TV’s biggest sporting events -- have ended, networks can again count all the money they get out of big major sports franchises. But a lawsuit by a group of former NCAA athletes has the potential to change the formula.

On the same day that ABC and ESPN rejoiced over the tight, entertaining, competitive NBA Finals that saw the Miami Heat best the San Antonio Spurs, an Oakland federal court judge oversaw a hearing regarding former college athletes – who might see a lot of money heading their way.

The lawsuit was filed four years ago by a few former athletes.  In particular, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon charged that marketers of video games and other merchandise had profited from using his college image.  The case has now been expanded -- wildly -- to possibly include billions of dollars TV networks pay to NCAA colleges and associations for the rights to air football, basketball and other sports events.

In effect, the question comes back to a long-time argument: Should college athletes be paid like professional athletes -- and should colleges treat them as professionals?

A lead NCAA lawyer says that with TV agreements, schools and conferences are simply "selling access" to their venues.

But it would seem that networks like CBS, ESPN, Turner and others hand over the big bucks because athletes are competing in those venues. It’s no mystery why the networks spend billions on college sporting events.  Yet no money goes to the athletes, but rather to the colleges and the ever-more-lucrative conferences and associations.

Networks also spend billions to support teams’ lucrative deals with millionaire athletes.

The NCAA had initially argued that O’Bannon and others gave up their rights through release forms signed when they were in school. But soon the case began focusing on antitrust issues; athletes were allegedly forced to sign waivers, and college sports licensing partners allegedly enforced a boycott against ex-players making their own deals.

An amended lawsuit now says the NCAA is using "collusive restraints" -- not paying athletes for "their names, images and likenesses in connection with live television broadcasts of games and video games."

Should the judge decide that the named plaintiffs, about 100 so far, represent a “class,” it could pave the way to changing the whole college sports game – and putting billions of TV dollars on the line.

Are college athletes TV performers?  Should they get “performance fees”? In the early days of reality programming, performers got nominal fees while producers reaped the big financial rewards. They did benefit from the publicity garnered by their shows -- as college athletes surely do from TV telecasts.

Any on-air TV and video performers -- no matter what their educational status, sport or art -- may demand a different set of rules in the future. Everyone wants a piece of the pie.



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