Longer season is product of money

Sunday, August 25, 2002

The longest major college football season ever began Thursday night in Charlottesville, Va., and will end Jan. 3 with the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. In between, Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech are among the schools who will play 13 regular-season games -- the most in their histories.

The jam-packed schedule came about because of a calendar quirk. This year, there is an extra Saturday during the ever-expanding window defined as the "regular season," which allowed the college sports officials to justify a 12-game regular season for all Division I-A schools.

But the real motivation is money. At football powerhouses such as Nebraska and Texas, a single home game is worth nearly $3 million, and for most cash-strapped athletic departments, no other source can generate such revenue.

"I think it speaks for itself: Our football tickets are 88 percent of our total revenue," said Bill Byrne, athletic director at Nebraska, which could play as many as 15 games this season. "I've heard the argument that we're asking too much of the student athlete. Yet if you talk to them, they like to play."

The old debate

Critics say those ticket sales and television dollars come with substantial costs -- all of them familiar conflicts in the debate over what is best for student-athletes in the big-money world of major college sports. More games may mean less time for schoolwork, aå greater chance for injuries, a further step toward professionalism and a possible justification for increasing the football scholarship limit.

NCAA officials decided in 1999 to add the 12th regular-season game in 2002 and five seasons to come in which the calendar provides an extra weekend between the last Saturday in August and the last Saturday in November. That meant extra games in 2003, '08, '13, '14 and '19.

Already, though, talk has begun that athletic department officials are not going to be content to enjoy the windfall only occasionally, and that the 12-game regular season is here to stay.

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