By Paul Arnett

Friday, February 19, 1999

ESPN getting pushy
about Oahu Bowl

MOST people probably remember "Network" for the mad prophet of the airways played by Peter Finch, who popularized the phrase, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

We decided to watch it the other night with our children and were chilled by how prophetic screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky proved to be 23 years later.

The easy theme is how television news is more about pictures than words, and presentation rather than substance. Fox's program directors have taken Chayefsky's fictitious UBS network and called it their own.

But as bad as that may be, the underlining message in "Network" of what could happen if a corporation owned a television network also has come true. And that 1990s reality is being acted out in the Western Athletic Conference and affecting the future of Hawaii sports on several fronts.

We soon discover in "Network" that UBS has fallen into the hands of some powerful conglomerate called CCA. Finch's character -- television anchor Howard Beale -- rages against the potential conflicts of big business having its fingers on the pulse of news and programming directors.

It was bad enough when General Electric bought NBC-TV a decade ago, but Disney's purchase of ABC is scarier still because most folks identify more with Mickey Mouse than they do a toaster.

ESPN is a subsidiary of ABC. That means, Disney is boss and if you don't like it, Mickey can always have Snow White's step mom or the Beast's enchantress pay you a call.

THESE days, WAC commissioner Karl Benson and Aloha Bowl executive director Lenny Klompus look through the peep hole before they open the door. As has been reported since December, ESPN is not interested in having the WAC champion take part in the Christmas Day doubleheader.

The sports network officials want Klompus to keep an at-large bid in place, so they have the option of inviting a deserving team from the Atlantic Coast, Big East or Southeastern conferences. Any team within shouting distance of Orlando, Fla., would be fine.

Benson believes the at-large stance leaves open the door for the Mountain West Conference champion. The Holiday Bowl is the first option, but if that new league's winner doesn't match up to Big Twelve three, then the Mountain West has no where else to go.

Sound paranoid? Well, it's not too far-fetched to see that ESPN would prefer the Mountain West champ over the WAC winner because of the recent television contract signed between the two.

ESPN told Benson, no thanks. And Fox is only interested in showing a few of the WAC's football games. The Mountain West and the WAC will be involved in a death struggle the next couple of years. And the conference with television will win.

ALL of this leaves Klompus in a delicate position. If anyone can sway ESPN to have the WAC champion be a part of the Oahu Bowl, it's him. He already said that ESPN's edict is Mickey Mouse.

"In all our years with ABC, they've never told us we had to take a certain team," Klompus said. "They may have suggested who they would prefer, but they left the final decision to us. Let's not forget, this is our game."

Apparently ESPN, which holds the broadcast rights to the Oahu Bowl, is not acting in kind. The big boys with the long cigars and cheap sunglasses are pointing to the fine print. "They reserve the right to ... "

Now, Klompus can go to New York and try to work out a deal that benefits the WAC and Hawaii. He can be calm and reasonable. After all, this is just business.

But if that fails, he can always pull the plug on the game and say, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

It's time somebody took that stance, before Disney rules what Beale described, "As the most awesome force in the whole godless world."

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.

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