SBJ/February 18-24, 2013/Champions

Kramer ‘a master puppeteer’ in dealing with TV networks

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Former CBS executive Len DeLuca describes Dec. 13, 1993, as a day that lives in infamy. At least in his world.
That’s the day Fox outbid CBS for the NFL’s NFC contract.

“Fox bid $395 million and CBS bid $295 million,” DeLuca said. “Game, set, match to Rupert Murdoch over Lawrence Tisch.”

But when one door closed, another opened — and that door led CBS to a groundbreaking new deal with the Southeastern Conference.

Photo: STEVEN BRIDGES PHOTO
“The timing was very fortuitous,” then-SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer said. “CBS got squeezed out. They had no football.”

That prompted DeLuca, then the vice president of programming for CBS, to reach out to Kramer to see whether there was any possibility of a deal for an SEC Game of the Week. At the time, the SEC put its TV rights into the College Football Association, which aggregated the rights of multiple conferences and sold them to ABC.

As talks progressed, CBS invited Kramer to the Super Bowl on Jan. 30, 1994, which made for an incredibly uncomfortable evening for Kramer. The ABC suite, where ABC Sports President Dennis Swanson was watching the game, was right next to the CBS suite.

“Roy looked pretty sheepish,” DeLuca said with a laugh. As he recalls, Kramer eventually ran into Swanson at the game.
“He said, ‘You might have told me that I’d be in the box next to Mr. Swanson,’” DeLuca said.

A week later, Kramer joined the CBS executives on a trip to the Lillehammer Olympics and they hammered out the final details of a five-year deal worth $95 million, significantly more than the conference received from its CFA deal.

Juggling delicate relationships with CBS, ABC and ESPN was one of Kramer’s specialties. It had to be because he worked with all of them during his 12 years as SEC commissioner — and at one time or another broke their hearts.

“The changes caused a lot of uneasiness for a while,” Kramer said.

CBS took the SEC’s regular-season package starting in 1996 as the league broke away from the CFA and its ABC deal. At the same time, ABC had the rights to the SEC football championship game for two more years.

Then, as Kramer and the conference commissioners developed the format for the BCS in 1996, he had to tread delicately again. ABC had the rights to the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, while CBS had the Orange and Fiesta bowls.

When the BCS was formed, the conference commissioners had to give the contract for all of the major bowls to ABC because of its long-running relationship with the Rose Bowl. That meant that CBS would lose the Fiesta and Orange bowls.

“CBS got taken out,” said DeLuca, who had since moved to ESPN, a secondary player to the networks at the time. “Roy had to tell CBS that they were out of the postseason. People at CBS were saying nasty things to Roy. That had to be tough. He needed a friend at CBS.”

About that time, Mike Aresco, a friend of Kramer’s at ESPN, moved to CBS to direct its college programming, and that eased some of the tension between CBS and the SEC.

“There were some hard feelings at CBS,” Aresco said. “But it was the only way they could get a national championship game in place. CBS ended up benefiting enormously over the years from the SEC deal.”

The way DeLuca remembers it, Kramer played an influential role in helping Aresco move to CBS, where the commissioner needed an ally in the aftermath of the BCS arrangement.

“Roy had his guys everywhere,” DeLuca said. “He had friends all over the place. He was the master puppeteer.”

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