With a clang of cymbals, a clatter of commercials and bidding that sounds like proposals for the national defense budget, the three major television networks have for some time now been working themselves into a Gillette Foamy lather over sports. This year, from surfboarding to the World Series, live and in color, by tape and by satellite, the Big Three of TV have brought more athletic entertainment into living rooms than ever before. So it is all the more remarkable that on a total-hour basis the efforts of ABC, CBS and NBC combined will be outstripped by a little-known—and aptly named—competitor, Sports Network Incorporated.
SNI not only specializes in televising athletic events, it finds a way to assemble a new network for every sport it puts on the air. Sports Network has been described by one industry executive as "almost an illusion, nothing more than a man on a telephone." Yet in 1965 the company was one of American Telephone and Telegraph's largest customers, running up a $7 million bill that did not come from that "one man" making a lot of long-distance calls to Tahiti. Less than 10 years ago Sports Network was two people working in a borrowed room. Today it employs 100 full-time staffers and 150 free-lancers; it occupies 4,600 square feet of offices overlooking New York's Fifth Avenue, and 21,000 square feet more on 46th Street, in Rutherford and East Rutherford, N.J., St. Louis and Los Angeles; it owns $4 million worth of the latest taping and mobile equipment, including two new color units that the major networks have been known to covet, and it focuses its extensive facilities on 1,000 events a year.
Sports Network's most important asset, however, is still that man on the telephone, 55-year-old Richard Eugene Bailey, who founded SNI in late 1955 and who owns 98% of the stock. In the world of television he is considered somewhat of a misfit, partly because he is so completely his own boss—which means, in turn, that he is in a position to be as good as his word.
"Dick's a breath of fresh air in what can be a pretty vicious business," says the programming director of a major advertising agency. "I'd never go on the air with a network show unless I had everything I needed from the network in writing. I don't need that from Dick. His word and handshake are enough."
With his word and his handshake Dick Bailey can now put a national network together in almost as little time as it takes a viewer to open a beer. In his 10 years he has televised, mostly on a network basis, auto racing, baseball, basketball (pro and college), bowling, boxing, dog shows, football (pro and college), frostbite sailing, golf, gymnastics, horse racing, iceboating, ice hockey, jai alai, lacrosse, polo, skiing, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and wrestling. This year SNI's live sports coverage will run to more than 2,500 hours.
A typical example of the role SNI plays in sportscasting can be seen in its handling of the 1963 Bing Crosby pro-amateur golf tournament. On January 2, 15 days before the tournament was to start, Bob Breckner, then president of KTTV in Los Angeles, called Bailey in New York to advise him that ABC was not picking up its option to televise the Crosby. Tournament officials were willing to sell the TV rights for the low price of $20,000 to anyone who could guarantee some sort of national hookup, The offer sounded good to Bailey, who was ready to say yes, but there were some immediate problems. Breckner had already checked with a sponsor and been told that it would be impossible to round up a network in such a short time. The sponsor had indicated two key stations, one in Nashville and one in New Orleans, that reportedly would never join. Bailey reacted instinctively to the challenge. He reached for the telephone and within an hour had commitments from WSM in Nashville and WDSU in New Orleans, the stations in question. Thus encouraged, he stayed at the telephone and kept right on calling.
"The whole staff worked long into the night for those two weeks," says Bailey, relishing the recollection. "To take advantage of the time-zone changes we would start calling the eastern stations first and then work west with the sun. At 8:30 each night, when the West Coast offices were closing down, we'd stop calling and start sending out the wires of confirmation and wrapping up the paper work."
When the tournament finally reached the home screens the show had five sponsors and was picked up by a network of 121 stations that covered 86% of the U.S. It also got a higher Nielsen rating than any golf tournament televised that year: an 11.0, compared to 10.4 for the Masters, 7.0 for the U.S. Open and 7.2 for the PGA. All of which gave Jack Nicklaus some pain in his self-esteem, for it meant there were 22 million people watching when he three-putted the last green to lose, and gave ABC some pain in the same place for having dropped the Crosby.
The sports spectaculars, such as the World Series, the college bowl games, the pro football playoffs, the major golf tournaments and the Kentucky Derby, have become pretty much the exclusive preserve of the big networks because ABC, CBS and NBC can usually risk more on a high bid for TV rights. It is Bailey, however, who provides the viewing public with week-to-week, meat-and-potatoes nourishment. This year SNI has handled, for example, the NCAA basketball championship, the collegiate indoor track, swimming and diving, and ski championships, the national indoor tennis championship, pro basketball games and 90% of the major horse races run on the East Coast. It also scheduled 13 live telecasts of PGA golf tournaments and did all of the road games televised back home by the 20 major league baseball clubs.
The baseball contract was what led to the founding of SNI. In 1954, when he was working for ABC as the company's chief network coordinator, Dick Bailey was called in by the BBDO advertising agency on behalf of two clients, Schaefer beer and Lucky Strike, who wanted better cost efficiency for their broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodger baseball games. Bailey investigated, and by streamlining transmission operations he was able to save the two sponsors a quick $45,000. This made him suspect that he might be able to save similar amounts all around the league. In those days most of the 16 major league clubs televised home games as a matter of course, but beaming a road game back to the TV sets at home was a rare thing. The chief obstacles were the ones usually associated with a disorganized, every-man-for-himself enterprise. Cost—about $4,000 per game, depending on the distance from home—was only one. The others were the difficulties inherent in setting up each telecast on a one-shot basis: installing new telephones in the broadcasting booth each time, installing new transmission facilities, lining up stations to carry the game, etc.
"I figured that if these away-from-home games could be handled by one outfit, my own, instead of 16 separate ones," says Bailey, "I could reduce costs by 30%. That would mean a total saving of about $400,000. I also figured that if I could get a major league baseball account I could set up Sports Network Incorporated."
The built-with-wire octopus behind the entire television industry is A.T.&T., whose tentacles are the cables and the microwaves needed to transmit the sight and sound of a TV show from city to city. A.T.&T.'s facilities are for rent, roughly on this basis, says Bailey: to the one-shot "occasional" user for $1 per mile per hour and to the "contract" user for $35 per mile per month per consecutive eight-hour day—which is, assuming the contract is fully utilized, one-eighth the occasional rate. If he could contract to handle all major league road-game telecasts, Bailey figured he could use the contract rate.
"But that's where the problem comes in," says Bailey. "You've got to know how to use the facilities to get the most out of the wholesale rate."
A congress of 50 representatives of sponsors, ad agencies and baseball clubs met at Chicago's Hotel Knickerbocker in December 1955 to hear Bailey's claims (that he could save them money) and review Bailey's credentials (20 years in the broadcasting business). They were impressed, and the deal that put Bailey into business for himself was soon closed. In its first year of operation, 1956, Sports Network signed up to handle the telecasting of 300 major league baseball games. It also produced 1,200 radio broadcasts.
With the major league baseball teams giving him a solid nut of operating revenue and allowing him to rent transmission facilities at the contract rate, Bailey was able to expand quickly—the very first afternoon, in fact. The morning of its first day SNI consisted of Bailey and an assistant working in a room loaned to them by Bailey's lawyer, Stuart Sprague. Aghast at how much time Bailey was spending on his telephone, Sprague got rid of the two squatters within a few hours by finding an office for them downstairs in the same building.
Before long Sports Network needed all the office space it could get. In the fall of 1956 it began televising Cleveland Brown football games, soon picked up Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and then moved on to handle any event in which there appeared to be sponsor interest. SNI endeared itself forever to basketball fans when it covered the NCAA final from Louisville in 1963, the year Loyola of Chicago rallied in the second half to upset presumably invincible Cincinnati. This telecast came up with an upset of its own. It went on against Have Gun, Will Travel and Gunsmoke and beat them both in the ratings.
One of the reasons that Bailey's company has thrived is that if he had the time he would be his own best audience. "I live and breathe sports," he says. "I always have." His father owned the Macon, Ga. baseball team of the old Sally League. When his father died the Baileys moved to Baltimore, where Bailey became a football, basketball and track star in high school, as well as an able sandlot baseball player. His potential for a professional athletic career ended in the summer he graduated from high school, when he badly fractured his right ankle playing semipro baseball. After the accident Bailey confined himself to golf and Sunday-afternoon softball. Recently he bought some racehorses, and he now has three broodmares and two foals at a farm in Lexington, Ky.
Another reason for SNI's success is that Bailey likes work as well as sport. When he first came to New York in 1930, after two years at the University of Maryland, he started out by holding down a day job, a night job and taking courses at Columbia. He kept working at two jobs until 1954, when he was both traffic coordinator at ABC during the day and a telegrapher and rewrite man at United Press during the evening. He also married and raised seven children.
Perhaps it is all his own action that has made Bailey a fast-acting executive, but his speed has remained one of the strongest attributes of SNI. It was, for example, the main factor in Bailey's obtaining the rights to the 13-tournament PGA National Tour program. ABC took so long in trying to formulate its package offer in 1964 that Marty Carmichael, the PG A's television representative, finally decided to sell it to Bailey for $700,000.
The PGA National Tour show is Bailey's most ambitious project to date. Not including his fixed overhead, the expense to Bailey is about $2.4 million. This breaks down as $700,000 for the TV rights, $700,000 to A.T.&T. for transmission and $1 million for air time to the 180 stations that carry the tournaments. Bailey's income on the series comes from the $17,500 that the three sponsors, Bell System, Goodyear and Plymouth, pay for each of 11 one-minute spots on each telecast. This amounts to a total of $2,502,500 and leaves Bailey with a small profit margin, if any at all.
"We'll probably lose money," says Bailey, "but we're doing it for prestige, to get our name out in front as an entree to advertisers who may want to do other programs. It's a breakthrough for us."
Aside from its expense, the PGA National Tour show raises other problems as well. "Golf is by far the toughest sport to televise live," says Bailey. "If you are doing three or four holes you have to cover a wide territory under all kinds of weather conditions." And the very nature of the game makes it a TV director's nightmare. The crucial action does not unfold in orderly sequence but all over the course and often simultaneously. The director, who is responsible for picking the right picture from a battery of 10 to 15 cameras, does not want to zero in on Joe Obscure while leader Arnold Palmer is sinking a 50-foot putt on the next-to-last hole. To keep mistakes like this at a minimum the producer must employ technicians, cameramen and announcers who have a quick, sharp knowledge of the game and its players. Such people have not proved easy to find.
Sports Network's golf telecasts have not been flawless, but the growing pains have become less and less noticeable to the folks back home, much to Bailey's relief. And Bailey got a tremendous break this year when tournament after tournament had an exciting climax. About nine million viewers saw Doug Sanders hole a 35-foot putt in Pensacola, Fla. in March to beat Jack Nicklaus on the third hole of the longest sudden-death playoff ever shown on national television, saw Dick Mayer hit an approach shot into the cup in New Orleans in May to win a first prize of $20,000, saw Dan Sikes knock in a 35-foot putt in Cleveland in June to edge Tony Lema for a $25,000 win, and saw Billy Casper take a playoff in July in Hartford. This is the kind of thing that SNI likes to get on the air—not a superspectacular, to be sure, but sport at its best nonetheless.
In early December SNI viewers may witness the most intriguing golf telecast of all. The final event of its golf series will be the PGA's first team-play tournament, the $200,000 National Four-Ball Championship at Palm Beach. Bailey is puzzling over how his cameras and his announcers are going to make sense out of an event in which four players will be in each group but paired as two-man teams, where the low score on each hole for each team will count toward a 72-hole medal score and—well, never mind. That is Bailey's problem, and a lot of golf fans will get to see how he solves it. When he does, he can check how he did by applying his own audience test, one that has assured him of the interest in TV golf.
"My driving-range man tells me his place is deserted every time a golf tournament's on TV," he says.
Hm. Does this mean that televised sport is replacing sport itself? If so, blame it on Dick Bailey.