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BCS sells out; we pay price

Unless you’re one of the dwindling millions who still get your television from rabbit ears, it probably didn’t register.

And if you are one of those dwindling millions, it doesn’t matter. The people who run big-time sports don’t care about you anyway.

That became more than apparent this week when the Bowl Championship Series sold out to the highest bidder and, in the process, sold out more than 15 million U.S. households, who now will have to find another way to watch college football’s biggest games.

They did it for the money, a staggering half a billion dollar’s worth over four years. They did it because when the worldwide leader in sports comes calling, they know better than not to listen.

They did it because they can.

No one uttered a peep. No one said much of anything, unless you count some sour grapes from the Fox network, which couldn’t match the economic muscle of ESPN.

It’s just business as usual, and the business in this case is college football, which long ago gave up the pretense of being anything other than a big money factory for the schools that play it.

Can’t afford cable or satellite TV? Too bad, but you’re not the demographic advertisers want watching anyway.

The demographic they do want are the members of 98 million U.S. households who pay for the television they watch, though most of them have no idea that they fork out an extra $3 or so every month for the right to have ESPN piped into their living rooms.

The television giant commands by far the biggest subscriber fee from cable and satellite companies, mainly because it offers the most sports programming for a nation that seems to have an insatiable appetite for games on television.

It’s a nice business model that the free television networks can’t match, and it generates so much money that it allows ESPN to outbid them for almost any event it wants.

But it also means that you’re essentially paying now for sports you used to get for just the price of watching some commercials. The trend is toward pay television, and it accelerated in the past week as ESPN added both the biggest college football games in the United States and one of golf’s majors — the British Open — to its ever-expanding lineup.

That’s bad news for people who either can’t afford or don’t want to pay for cable or satellite. But it will be hardly noticed by most of the rest of us, who look at the monthly television bill as a basic necessity much the way they view their electric bill.

“I think we all treat our cable bill now as part of the woodwork,” said Neal Pilson, a former CBS executive who now works as a consultant in the television industry. “It doesn’t make any difference to me or 98 million other consumers who have ESPN that the games will be on channel 36 rather than channel 2, 4, or 7. I’m sure most kids today don’t even understand the difference between a television station and a cable channel.”

That’s probably true, but what they should understand is that the growing trend toward paying to watch sports on television eventually will cause them to reach deeper and deeper into their wallets.

Paying a few bucks a month now isn’t such a big deal, especially because it’s buried deep inside the cable bill. But how about in a few years when it’s $10 or 20 a month and when boxing and mixed martial arts aren’t the only sports being offered on pay per view?

Don’t think that’s not going to happen.

The Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN and ABC, easily could have kept the BCS and the British Open on free television. But it chose to put them on ESPN and cut out millions of Americans because having two more valuable properties will enable it to charge even more than the three bucks it now gets every month from your cable bill in the future.

Remember when the idea of having to pay to watch the Super Bowl seemed laughable? It’s not so funny anymore.

Pilson said Congress probably would step in before that happened, but with “Monday Night Football” already on cable and the BCS heading there, not much seems sacred anymore. That’s especially true when the NFL has its own cable channel and major league baseball will soon have its own, too.

It’s a slow but insidious process, but there’s no doubt about the final result.

In the end, you’ll be paying for what you once got for free.

Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.

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