When Keith Jackson broadcasts a sports event, it doesn't have to be important to sound important. He has that urgent Voice of Authority that can make fourth-and-goal seem as significant as the outbreak of World War III. It was the voice that gave an illusion of credibility to the United States Football League. It was the voice that could take a manufactured piece of fluff like "Super Stars" and transform it into a quasi-legitimate athletic competition. Only Walter Cronkite could have done it better.
In 33 years as a sports broadcaster, Jackson has covered everything from the Olympics to auto racing. He is best known as the play-by-play man for ABC's college football telecasts, highly respected for his clear, crisp reporting and pertinent observations. Although he is usually high on enthusiasm and low on opinions during broadcasts, he certainly has no reservations about speaking his mind when the mike is off.
From his perch in the press box, he has witnessed many changes in sports over the years, and he hasn't really liked what he's seen.
When Jackson replaced Chris Schenkel as ABC's top college broadcaster 12 years ago, he literally was the voice of college football. There were no cable telecasts, no independent networks. ABC held the exclusive right to air college football games, and the big game was always handled by Jackson. When you tuned in ABC and heard Jackson's voice, you knew that something major was going on, that this game was actually meaningful. Today, on one of those any-given-Saturdays in the fall, you can spin the dial and seemingly find a football game on almost every channel. Jackson and ABC still do a big game, but it just doesn't mean as much as it once did.
In June, 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Texas and Georgia and took away from the NCAA the right to control telecasts of sports events. As a result, individual colleges were able to complete deals with anyone who owned a video camera.
With an open market for their games, it seemed as though the major colleges would experience a financial windfall. But, apparently, the opposite has happened. The glut of telecasts has diluted the product. Ratings are down, advertising revenue is down. Perhaps some major colleges are making more money than they ever have, but overall, Jackson said, about $30 million less was spent for college football rights this season than in seasons past.
"I'm a little bemused by the lack of intelligence on the part of those who are supposed to think for the future," said Jackson, sitting in his Sherman Oaks home, which overlooks the Valley. "They want to call it exposure, but you have to be an idiot not to realize that it's saturation. You're seeing empty seats in stadiums now that you never saw 20 or 25 years ago.
"The worm turned when the universities decided that football and basketball were prime revenue producers. It's like the old homily. To get elected to political office you have to compromise all the principles that made you a candidate in the first place. When those college presidents decided that they were going to rely on revenue from football and basketball, they compromised away their principles."
Jackson blames college presidents for not heeding the warnings of those who wanted the NCAA to get antitrust exemptions from Congress. "They were told that anyone could blow them out of the water, but the college presidents sat in the ivory towers of academia and scoffed at that," Jackson said. "Now, saturation is going to wear out--kill--a piece of Americana I care about very much. But so be it. I'm not going to cry tears for it."
Jackson sipped on a glass of red wine, then walked over and stoked his fireplace. In the corner of his living room stood a well-trimmed Christmas tree. Tradition means a lot to him.
"Remember when UCLA and Notre Dame played a basketball game and the whole country stopped for two hours?" Jackson said wistfully. "Now you sit down on an average Saturday in January and February and you can watch 20 or 40 college basketball games if you've got a satellite dish. You lose something with saturation. You lose the special moments. It was kind of fun to look forward to one special game."
What's happening in college athletics reflects a commercialization of sports, says Jackson, who forsees a bleak future.
"Down the long road, unless there is a some sociological or philosophical change," he said, "we will just destroy it."
The problem with professional sports, he says, is the infusion of seemingly limitless TV money, owners who buy franchises as "playthings" and fans who apparently are willing to keep paying exorbitant ticket prices.
"But there isn't a damn thing going on in sports that isn't going on in our generic society," he said. "Sports just happens to have a greater glare of media than any other thing."
It is in the best interests of Madison Avenue to keep sports alive and well. But Jackson doesn't have much faith in the advertising masterminds of the world.