NCAA Calls It Quits With EA Sports

Howard on the cover of NCAA Football 06

Howard on the cover of NCAA Football 06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday there was a fascinating development in the ongoing issue surrounding the use of student-athlete likeness in video games.  The NCAA decided that it would not renew its licensing agreement with EA Sports to produce the “EA Sports NCAA Football” video game.  As you might imagine, the NCAA’s press release was carefully worded to not admit wrongdoing or liability in any of the ongoing litigation surrounding these agreements.  However litigation costs were cited as a reason for the non-renewal:

 

 

But given the current business climate and costs of litigation, we determined participating in this game is not in the best interests of the NCAA.

The NCAA also used the opportunity to continue beating the drum of denying ever licensing student-athletes’ names or likenesses:

The NCAA has never licensed the use of current student-athlete names, images or likenesses to EA. The NCAA has no involvement in licenses between EA and former student-athletes.

USA Today provides detailed reporting of the decision here.

So what is the impact of this turn of events on the actual pending litigation?  First, it’s important to keep in mind the scope of what the NCAA controls here.  It is only ceasing the licensing of its logo and name; that means the college football game produced by EA Sports can no longer be called “NCAA Football.”  Nor will you see the blue circle logo with “NCAA” in the middle of it.

What this decision does not do is prevent EA Sports from making a college football game with NCAA member schools and conferences represented.  Those licenses are provided by each individual school through their licensing arms (most use CLC which is also a defendant in the O’Bannon case), and it’s up to them to renew their own agreements.  So a big question at this point is, what will the individual schools and conferences do?  If they continue on like business as usual, the game will live on with little change.  If they follow the NCAA’s lead and do not renew their licensing agreements, EA Sports will be left with a terrible choice: 1) produce a game with zero reference to the NCAA or any member school, or 2) simply stop production of the game altogether.  ESPN’s Darren Rovell talks here about the possible outcomes.

The NCAA is also doing damage control with this decision.  By ending the relationship with EA Sports with the 2014 game, the NCAA is capping the potential number of plaintiffs that could potentially have claims against it and ensuring no further damage.  It also has made a business decision that the risks and costs associated with defending these and other related claims outweigh the financial benefits of continuing the licensing agreement.

Note, however, that this decision does nothing with regards to current student-athletes and money earned from televising live events.  Nor does it impact the issues relating to former student-athletes and archived footage (e.g. old games on ESPN Classic).  Remember also that the plaintiffs in the O’Bannon case have stopped pursuing claims involving licensed apparel, gear and merchandise.

At the end of the day, this decision by the NCAA may not mean a whole lot substantively in the various pending cases.  Plaintiffs are going to trumpet the separation from EA as some kind of admission of wrongdoing.  They are going to it to further wage the PR battle that has been going pretty well for them over the past few months.  There’s no doubt, however, that the largest pending event in the case still is the decision to be made by Federal Judge Claudia Wilken, who will decide shortly whether to certify the O’Bannon plaintiffs as a class.  We’re also waiting to see which current student-athlete or athletes will be added to the list of named plaintiffs in the case.  I’ve written in detail about these issues here.

What the NCAA’s decision means for EA’s College Football game and its fans, however, could be significant if the individual schools pull out of their licensing deals as well.  There may be a game with unidentified or made up teams running around the field, or no game at all.

 

***Update*** EA Sports announced it would continue making college football games, citing its strong relationship with CLC. We’ll see in the coming months just how strong the relationship is. See EA’s statement here.

 

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