Tom Hamilton was a hard man. He played halfback and quarterback on the undefeated Navy team that won a national championship in 1926. He led a come-from-behind touch-down drive, them drop-kicked the extra point that tied Army in one of the best football games ever played. A pioneer naval aviator, he flew scout, patrol, torpedo and transport planes and, in World War II, commanded aircraft carriers in the Pacific. But nothing, not lunging linemen or crashing kamikazes, scared him the way television in its infancy did. "We are dealing with a terrific force like a powerful wind of gale velocity," the retired rear admiral warned the 1951 convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. "We are already feeling the first breezes of this hurricane."
Hamilton, then athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh, and his colleagues feared the new medium threatened college football: It could siphon gate receipts, their programs' lifeblood, its live images overexposing and making mundane the sport's spectacle. To prevent that, they were willing to tie one another's hands. Members agreed to bar schools from independently selling rights to games. When the University of Pennsylvania ignored the edict, the NCAA branded it "a member not in good standing," and the Quakers caved in. The NCAA signed one contract for all, restricted the times a team could appear on TV and created the Football Television Committee, which, along with the networks, decided what games would be shown. "They wanted to protect the sport," writes Kevin Dunnavant, author of The 50-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS. "They assumed they could."
The plan resulted in lopsidedly uniform payouts. In 1981, more than 200 ABC stations showed a much-publicized match between Oklahoma and Southern Cal. That same week, only four broadcast the Citadel-Appalachian State game, but the network paid each school roughly the same fee. Football powers had grown weary of the NCAA's protection, so Oklahoma and Georgia sued the governing body, contending that it was violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. John Swofford, then in his early 30s and already athletic director at UNC Chapel Hill, flew to Albuquerque, N.M., where the suit was heard. As a member of the Football Television Committee, there was a chance he would be called to testify. A federal judge ruled against the NCAA, calling it a "classic cartel," without Swofford taking the stand. "I would probably have come down on the side of the NCAA," he says. "The national package through the NCAA was appropriate. I thought that at the time."
The U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court followed the lower court's lead, freeing schools to negotiate for themselves. "A lot of people were really afraid of what would occur when that ruling came down," says Swofford, now 63 and commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. "It's like anything else. When you have those kinds of transitions, there's usually an opportunity where you first see an obstacle." But along with opportunity came a storm the admiral never saw coming.
Spurred by increased popularity and exposure, the value of college football's TV contracts has exploded since the sport was deregulated. In 1980, the more than 100 schools then in the NCAA's top division received a total of $27.8 million. Most now negotiate as part of their conferences, and the 12 members of the Big Ten alone share almost $250 million a year. At least 70% of that's from football, with basketball making up almost all the rest. "Football is king in this country," UNC Charlotte sports economist Craig Depken says. "If you just look at the amount of money that's generated nationally but also regionally, college football dominates." That's bad news for the ACC, the Greensboro-based nonprofit that oversees 12 schools playing 25 sports. Formed in 1953, its original seven members' fortunes veered sharply toward the hardwood--they've won 12 NCAA titles in basketball and just two in football. It's one of college basketball's most lucrative leagues, but that's trifling nowadays. For example, Duke University generated basketball revenue of $26.7 million in 2009-10, most of any school. Football at the University of Texas, a member of the Big 12 Conference, more than tripled that.
Given its tribulations on the gridiron, the ACC could well have shriveled into obscurity, but it clings to the final spot among the Big Five conferences thanks to John Douglas Swofford. "He's one of the few people in college athletics who gets it," says Barry Frank, executive vice president of New York-based IMG Media Sports Programming and an ACC consultant. "He knows what makes it tick. Money" He also knows where to find it. ESPN Inc., an all-sports subsidiary of Burbank, Calif.-based The Walt Disney Co., has become collegiate football's dominant network. According to Depken, it...