US sports showdown goes to courts

August 8, 2003

American universities that normally compete on the court or field are instead facing off in court, in Congress and in the press this summer as they posture for the greatest profits from intercollegiate athletics.

During a summer of discontent, one of the biggest intercollegiate athletic conferences has been stealing teams from a rival to maximise its revenues from broadcasting rights, while other universities have formed a coalition to reform the system and take power from what they call athletics "cartels".

Congress announced hearings for this month to discuss whether athletic conferences were violating anti-trust laws.

The dispute began when three universities with successful American football teams - Boston College, Miami and Syracuse - announced they were leaving the Big East Conference and joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, which would increase their profits from athletics.

The five schools remaining in the Big East have sued to recover millions of dollars they spent based on verbal promises, notably from the University of Miami, that all the member schools were planning to stay in the league.

Miami president Donna Shalala, a former US secretary of state, said in March that "the University of Miami is in the Big East and has no interest in leaving it for any other conference".

The University of Connecticut invested $90 million (£56 million) upgrading its stadium so its football team could join the Big East in 2005.

"We will not sit idly by on the sidelines as these teams leave," said Connecticut governor John Rowland. Connecticut's attorney general has said he will file an injunction to stop the defecting schools from joining the ACC.

While universities such as Miami will make more money with the ACC, those remaining in the diminished Big East stand to lose millions of dollars as potential TV rights decline in value.

This is despite the fact that, as West Virginia president David Hardesty said, "Big East schools have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reliance of these now-broken promises".

Presidents of 44 other schools have demanded the right to participate in the football championship series controlled by the ACC, the Big East and four other conferences, which bring with them television profits averaging $13 million per school per championship. They complain that while it is theoretically possible for teams from outside these conferences to qualify for the championship finals, none ever has. The 44 plan to set up a coalition for athletics reform to consider how to increase the number of teams eligible to play in the championships.

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