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NCAA Is Next Up for Disney

August 25, 1993|MIKE PENNER

Walt Disney Co.'s quest for world domination hit a snag recently just outside Paris, where legions of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, apparently having no use for Pluto Pate or Jiminy Croissants, have turned up their noses at Euro Disney.

Moral of the story: Money can't buy you everything.

Not that Disney hasn't stopped trying, of course.

American college football has become the latest target--specifically, the championship of college football. For $10 million, Disney would like to buy the NCAA its own national title game, to be played in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, in Anaheim, which may never know championship-caliber football any other way.

Consider it a benevolent gesture. Disney is packaging it as such--wrapping the game inside the glittering ribbons and bows of a week-long "celebration of college arts and academics," complete with scheduled performances by the U.S. Collegiate Symphony Orchestra, live college theater at the Performing Arts Center, scholarly forums and a 107-school college fair at the Anaheim Convention Center.

"We're appealing to the college presidents, who have recently taken more of a firm hand in the operation of college athletics," says Don Andersen, executive director of the Orange County Sports Assn., Disney's partner-in-proposal. "We want to enhance the image of the United States educational system with a weekly salute to excellence in academics. I think we're appealing to the right body."

That's the bait on the hook, anyway. For years, college presidents have been resolute in their determination: No Extra Football. They want fewer games, not more. And the NCAA likes its postseason just the way it is, with 18 annual bowl games, guaranteeing 18 annually happy teams.

If Disney thinks it can sweep away these decades-old obstacles by simply cutting a few checks, it came to the wrong sport. This isn't the NHL. The NCAA has no Gary Bettman, who has devoted the first eight months of his commissionership to making sure Michael Eisner is completely comfy and cozy.

The NCAA is going to look at Disney's offer in the cold numbers--$1 million to each participating school, with $8 million to be divided among the other 105 Division I-A institutions, about $75,000 per university--and it is going to find Disney lacking.

One million per team? The Rose Bowl pays $5 million a team. The Sugar and Orange bowls pay between $3 million and $4 million. Even the Freedom Bowl coughed up $722,000 apiece for USC and Fresno State last December.

And as for the 105 bystanding schools, what is $75,000 going to buy them? Two more math professors?

"Well, if you want to say $10 million is 'insignificant,' " Andersen says, laughing. "Other (championship game) proposals may have involved more money, but they were always predicated on 'If this happens, if that happens.' It was all conjecture.

"Our numbers are based on discussions we've had with ABC-TV and other sponsors. Our numbers are hard and fast."

Beyond money, two more questions immediately crop up:

Does the NCAA really need a championship football game?

And if it does, does it need to play it in Anaheim, home of the 35,000-in-the-house Disneyland Pigskin Classic?

Last year, the Bowl Coalition delivered what it promised--a championship decider. The Sugar Bowl pit No. 1 Miami against No. 2 Alabama and Alabama won. Case closed. In Disney's future world, with MegaBowl in place, are Alabama and Miami supposed to play again three weeks later? Or does Alabama tee off against No. 3 Florida State, a team already vanquished by Miami? Redundancy hangs heavy in the January air.

Andersen would rather point to 1991, when Washington and Miami were declared co-champions, or 1990, when Colorado and Georgia Tech split the vote. Those years begged for title games. Future years could as well, but what is there to convince the NCAA that Anaheim would ever be the place?

At the moment, Disney's Pigskin Classic at Anaheim Stadium has sold just 37,000 tickets--32,000 shy of capacity--despite the supposed attraction of USC and the second coming of John Robinson. Andersen can't believe it. "USC has sold 12,000 tickets," Andersen says, his tone incredulous. "I really thought they'd go 25,000 to 30,000. I just thought with Robinson coming back . . .

"I wish I had an answer."

How about this: Orange County does not care for college football. Not in its own backyard.

It will cheer for its sons at USC and UCLA and San Diego State, but it will let the program at Cal State Fullerton die of indifference and turn its back on Top 20 matchups at the Big A every August, every time.

Let's face it, Orange County is hockey country. Disney, at least, got that part right.

Ann Arbor deserves a college football championship game more than Anaheim, but Disney is the one putting up the the money, and there's no such thing as Wolverine World. So Disney makes its offer, readies its lobbying forces and hopes for a January, 1995, start-up date.

And Andersen, in the meantime, is allowed to dream.

"That would be one game I would hope we could sell out," he muses. "Even without Fresno State."

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