Sponsors cry foul on college sports

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Prodded by frustrated marketers, a watchdog group gathered last week in Washington, D.C., to come up with a plan to repair college athletics' image following high-profile scandals ranging from academic cheating to murder. At stake is the more than $1 billion a year marketers spend to sponsor televised college sports.

Hodding Carter III, president of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, and Michael Aresco, senior VP-programming for Viacom's CBS, a major broadcaster of college sports, said they have heard from marketers concerned about associating with college athletics. Neither would identify the companies.

"Network TV is beginning to hear from advertisers," Mr. Carter said. "As advertisers have been known to flee from fallen institutions in the past, this is an issue which, in the pure dollars-and-cents arena, ought to be of vital importance."

"Their real concern is what's being done about it," said Mr. Aresco, who is not part of the Knight Commission. "I don't think anybody is in danger of having ads pulled, but I think [advertisers] are concerned."

A spokesman for one major marketer, who asked not to be identified and who would not discuss whether his company approached Mr. Carter or Mr. Aresco, said marketers are right to question college-sports expenditures. "CBS just dropped the Michael Jackson special because of child-molestation allegations," he said. "After all that's happened in college athletics the last year or so, shouldn't we be concerned?"

CBS has one of the biggest sports deals on network TV, an 11-year, $6 billion agreement to televise the NCAA men's basketball tournament through 2013.

background

The Knight Commission is an independent group of 13 members, most of whom are current or former college presidents. It was put together 14 years ago to serve as a watchdog group over college athletics and to suggest reform. In 2001, it produced a seminal report titled: "A Call to Action: Reconnecting College Sports and Higher Education."

Though not aligned with the NCAA, the Knight Commission has proved to be a powerful force for change. In the last decade, at its prompting, college presidents have taken over the reins of college sports once handled by athletic directors and coaches.

That the commission reconvened last week in Washington just two years after issuing its report was a bit of a surprise. But college athletics have gone through a year of scandal. Key incidents of concern include the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy and the subsequent arrest of one of his teammates, followed by the resignation of coach Dave Bliss. Mr. Bliss was caught on tape telling players to lie and say the murdered player was a drug dealer.

more scandals

Academic scandals flared at Georgia and Fresno State. Iowa State's basketball coach, after admitting to a drinking problem after pictures circulated of him with college women at fraternity parties on other campuses, resigned. More resignations occurred at St. Bonaventure when the athletic director, college president and basketball coach left after the school admitted to enrolling a junior college player who didn't have an associate's degree.

According to Nielsen Media Research, advertisers spent $1.01 billion on college basketball and football telecasts in 2002, the last year figures were available. That ranked fourth behind the National Football League, sports commentary shows and the Olympics.

The top 10 advertisers in sports programming, collegiate and professional, are Anheuser-Busch; Chevrolet Motor Division; AT&T Corp.; Visa International; Ford Motor Co.; Miller Brewing; Coors Brewing; American Honda Motor; Nike; and McDonald's Corp. Most of those companies either did not return a phone call or declined to comment.

The Knight Commission appears to be equally apprehensive, but optimistic now that big advertisers are making waves. "What has impressed us and brought us back is not that reform wasn't succeeding, but that the powerful countervailing forces-particularly commercialization-are reaching bow-wave proportions," Mr. Carter said.

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