By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — To the surprise of no one, television has become the single most important driving force within the college football and basketball industries, and don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s a sport and not an industry on the Division 1 level.
It had tremendous power through the broadcast networks before ESPN came along, but the cable sports network let a revolution that took sports out of the stadium and brought it into the living room.
West Virginia has benefited from it in both sports.
Football, of course, remains at the top of the heap. WVU earned nearly $3 million in football television money through the Big East revenue sharing plan, including $880,445 in appearance fees, according to Mike Parsons, deputy athletic director who handles the broadcasting for the athletic department.
But the Golden Age of Television really begins in basketball.
When Parsons arrived in 1979, WVU was producing four or five games a year on its own.
“That was a big undertaking at the time,” Parsons said. “Television was much more difficult to do than it is today. You had the big ol’ cameras on the sidelines. And it was done by phone lines, not satellites. It was just a lot of different things.”
The school, a member of the Eastern Eight, which did not have a strong TV contract, began increasing the number of games until it reached 13 or 14 independently done games.
“We were doing these statewide games,” Parsons recalled. “But we also could put them in other places. We had them on in Arizona, for example, because they had a statewide network and were dying for programming.
“We even did a game for ESPN. We televised it, and ESPN carried it live. This was like back in the 1980s, and they were looking for any programming they could get. You’d never see that today.”
That all changed when WVU joined the Big East, which had long-standing, strong TV relationships with ESPN and CBS.
“That’s when the Mountaineer Sports Network (MSN) got out of the production of men’s basketball games,” Parsons said.
In essence, what really happened was that WVU turned its television rights over to the conference in football and basketball.
West Virginia can negotiate time and date for games not being broadcast nationally, but really has little control.
ESPN grew as no one could imagine, becoming multiple networks such as ESPN2 and ESPN U.
“They own games, produce games, even own and broadcast bowl games,” Parsons said.
The basic productions are done through ESPN Regional, which sometimes is referred to as ESPN Plus and is based in Charlotte. Rather than national broadcasts, these games are sold through syndication, which is why you might see WVU play on a station in Clarksburg or Fox Sports-Pittsburgh, even though it is an ESPN production.
“Say we are playing Syracuse,” Parsons explained. “They’ll put that on in West Virginia and Syracuse and on whatever regional network is looking for programming.”
The pay for appearing on ESPN Regional broadcasts? Not much.
“You don’t get anything more than a token to the home team for ESPN Regional, just for the inconvenience,” said Parsons.
So where does the money come from?
It’s a complicated procedure, according to Parsons.
“In football, the eight athletic directors sit down and allocate an appearance fee. If you go to a BCS bowl, you’ll get this amount of money. It was $2.4 million this year for the Fiesta Bowl, and you have to take your expenses out of that,” Parsons explained.
“Then, if you appear in a national TV game during the season, you get a certain amount of money. WVU and Pitt last year each got $135,000 for that game,” Parsons continued.
The Big East does not get revenue from all national games.
“We’re playing at Colorado this year,” Parsons said. “The Big East does not get any money for that. It’s the same with Auburn coming here. The SEC doesn’t get any money from that.”
At the end of the year, the Big East takes all the TV money it has earned — pays for bowl appearances and regular-season TV games — and the rest is split among the eight schools.
Basketball is not much different, although the Big East has 16 schools splitting the pot, including Notre Dame.
“If you are on ESPN or CBS, you get an appearance fee,” Parsons said. “If you are on regional, you get nothing.”
With the NCAA Tournament, which is the ultimate windfall from TV for college basketball, revenues are complicated to figure but quite lucrative. West Virginia received a check $2,946,000 as its proceeds from all sports other than football and “easily 90 percent or more” of that amount is attributable to the WVU run to the Sweet 16 this year, according to WVU’s associate athletic director/finance Russ Sharp.
The money that comes from the NCAA Tournament is based on accumulated units over six years, accumulated by the conference.
The units are based on numbers of games played in the tournament by conference teams, meaning if the Big East sends six teams to the NCAA Tournament one year and they play 12 games, they get 12 units. If the conference plays 72 NCAA Tournament games over six years, that’s an average of 12 units a year and a check is sent to the conference based on that.
Sharp said that the Big East received a $16 million check and gave out a base distribution from that of $820,000 to its 16 teams. Schools also get a participation fee of $125,000 per game and have their expenses paid by the NCAA, although the true expenses often exceed the NCAA reimbursement.
WVU has also recently gotten back into the production business, MSN doing selected women’s basketball games on public television.
While this doesn’t give the school much in the way of revenue, it does give the women’s program exposure that it needs if it is to grow.
MSN does produce a couple of feature shows, “Mountaineer Madness” in football and “Mountaineer Jammin’” in basketball.
“We found this shocking. On the football show, the ratings show 50 percent of the audience on that weekly show is female, and we love that,” Parsons said. “It allows us to build a whole other audience that is going to buy merchandise and come to games. Do you think in this day and age the female spouse doesn’t have a say in whether you come to a game or not?”
MSN also has replaced its late-night replay of games not shown live on TV with a show called “Mountaineer Replay,” which is just like the old Notre Dame replays done in the days of Lindsay Nelson.
“To be honest, it doesn’t have great viewership, but it’s a hard-core football fans opportunity to watch the game in one hour,” Parsons said. “And it has great recruiting exposure for us. When we are just getting regional exposure, parents can pick it up or watch it off satellite.
“It’s not a big profit type thing. It’s more exposure and for the hard-core fans.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.