The epoch of Super Spectator is upon us, and it is stupefying to behold. Consider the major land mass of the North American continent on Sunday, Jan. 12, 1969. From sea to shining sea on that afternoon—from Gloucester saltboxes to pink Cucamonga bungalows, from Sun City retirement cottages to snowbanked South Dakota farms—60 million citizens arranged themselves before television screens. In darkened parlors, behind drawn sun-porch blinds, beneath lightless bulbs in kitchen ceilings, in a million dim basements with knotty pine nailed over cement blocks, the country sat, and the multitude was as one, oblivious to the afternoon beyond. No butterfly, no snowflake, no street fight or car wreckage at the corner could vie for attention.
No, this was Super Sunday for Super Spectator, the Jets vs. the Colts in Miami; the 60 million (which is equal to 800 sold-out Orange Bowls, or 400 times the population of Plato's Athens) were bathed as one in the moon-gray glow of black-and-white cathode tubes or the ghosty green-peach of living color. They gazed, as one, entranced by the miniature facsimile of the game on their screens. For them the Super Bowl was played by electric Lilliputians: Joe Namath was no taller than a highball glass and, on occasion, the entire Baltimore team could have walked on the palm of a child. No matter. Many times the game faltered to a halt, the teams faded from view, the screen filled with cheerful pictures calculated to convince at least a few that they must soon purchase Gillette razor blades or Schlitz beer or a sedan made by Chrysler. No matter. The 60 million did not take open offense at the spiel of salesmen in their parlors. To be sure, it had cost up to $135,000 a minute to advertise that day on TV, but most of the 60 million watchers did not find that significant. Indeed, they took advantage of the lull in the athletic action to go do other things. As nearly always happens during commercials on major telecasts, the running of water all over America sent pressure dropping.
This is how the mass of America takes its sports at the beginning of the eighth decade of the 20th century. Insulated, isolated, miniaturized, in gloom of darkened room, essential plug in essential socket, electronic window aglow, a kindly brewer to pay the freight while the world steps out for a quick drink of cold water.
Now make no mistake, Super Spectator is by no means a creature born of or restricted to Super Bowl Sundays. It is true that he disintegrated when the plug was pulled that day, that when the tube went dark he atomized into a shoe clerk in Spokane, a meter reader in Richmond, a barber in Lincoln. But Super Spectator lives again each time TV pokes its $85,000 Plumbicon camera into a sporting event. He may be only 13 million strong for a bowling show (but that equals the population of Queen Victoria's England) or 24 million for a college football game (double the citizenry of Australia). Admittedly, he is a technological freak, a multi-ultraelectric Hydra. He is a conglomerate being conceived in the bloodless circuits of MassCom (mass communications), an offspring of the passionless miracles of engineers, a product of the frigid market research and performance requirements of advertising men. But sport as we know it today can no longer do without Super Spectator.
December 22, 1969
In the past 10 years sport in America has come to be the stepchild of television and, in a sense, handmaiden to the vicissitudes of Madison Avenue. In the very time of its ascendancy—in the affluent and chaotic decade of the '60s that launched it toward a new Golden Age—sport finds its greatest benefactor is electronic technology. This does not mean that the World Series has been or is about to be restyled by the clerks who concoct our usual lotus-eater's TV fare, that which assaults the mind by night with flying nuns and by day with the natter of grown-ups playing guessing games. No. Nor have the men dedicated to stamping out Dandruff Shoulder, Denture Stain and Dragon Mouth inherited the Kentucky Derby. Nor have technocrats made headwaiters out of the numerous statesmen of sport. The subservience has not come to that.
But it has come to this: the impact of television in these last 10 years has produced more revolutionary—and irrevocable—changes in sport than anything since mankind began to play organized games.
Because of TV markets, the venues of the major leagues extend into the deepest American bush. The very skyline of the land has been changed by a proliferation of stadiums, arenas, auditoriums, Palaestras, Palladiums and amphitheaters. Because of TV money, our star athletes are fliers of Lear Jets and presidents of corporations. The fortunes of our most spectacular sport franchises are soaring when they might otherwise be sinking into bankruptcy. Because of TV's power, no sensible entrepreneur buys a team, stages a major event, builds a stadium or even sets the starting hour of a game without first clearing it with a man from MassCom.
The geography, the economics, the schedules, the esthetics, the very ethos of sport has come to depend upon television's cameras and advertising's monies. And how does this strange passage of affairs strike the strong men and clear thinkers in our midst? Surely Vince Lombardi has an opinion, for isn't he football's most single-minded exponent of The Game Is the Thing? Has he not cursed any trace of outside influence in his domain? Was he not savage in his denunciation of TV attempts to post cameras at his sidelines or in his locker rooms? Yes, yes.
But Vince Lombardi has changed his thinking somewhat. He now says: "Considering the money involved, we do have to put forth some cooperation with television. If they ask us to start a little later so more people can see the game, we have to cooperate somewhat. We can't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Given today's budgets, there wouldn't be a single franchise left in the National Football League without television...."
Well. Then what of Bear Bryant? What does a college football coach, perhaps the best in America, think of the influence of television on the traditions of his sport? "We think TV exposure is so important to our program and so important to this university that we will schedule ourselves to fit the medium. I'll play at midnight if that's what TV wants."
And wise old Walter O'Malley, long a leading statesman and all-round guru of baseball—what does he say? Ah, it is scarcely 10 years since he brought the big leagues to the West Coast, and Walter O'Malley sits in a lavish suite in Chavez Ravine, surrounded by the heads of gnus, impala and gazelles shot on safari, while 3,000 miles away Ebbets Field is an apartment complex. Walter O'Malley smiles benignly and observes, "An old friend of mine used to say, 'Radio whets the appetite for baseball and television satiates it.' We televised nearly every home game in Brooklyn, and we'd have gone bankrupt if we stayed. But TV properly applied is splendid for baseball. My goodness, without our national Game of the Week program on NBC, many of our teams would be running in the red."
It has come to that? Only the gold produced by the television Establishment supports our major sports? It is a noble achievement, a magnificent obligation, is it not? But one must not forget that this television Establishment is the same television Establishment that has been roundly cursed for years as the planet's vastest wasteland. It is the one that was caught red-handed rigging quizzes (which somehow doesn't seem either so sinister or so scandalous now as it did in the late, innocent, silent '50s), the same Establishment that bathes itself in nightly waterfalls of blood and violence, the one that seems to pride itself on constantly holding up mindless, smiling, suburban mediocrity as the stuff of which the American Dream is made. Well, it is a dubious companion, this TV Establishment, but clearly it is the golden goose...or perhaps the platinum peacock.
There is a large body of commemorative material, oil paintings, song, poetry, bubble-gum-card art, given to the celebration of various of sport's greatest moments—Bobby Jones' Grand Slam, Tunney vs. Dempsey, that sort of thing—and it can become an awful bore. But another greatest moment should be added to the list, even if it never is immortalized in onyx or iambic.
It occurred in midafternoon May 17, 1939, when someone in a laboratory of the RCA Building in Manhattan pulled certain switches on a control board. Eight miles away there was a humming in the innards of a large iron panel truck, a sort of silver superhearse that was parked behind the bleachers at the baseball diamond of Columbia University's Baker Field. A flow of power activated an Iconoscope TV Camera perched upon a wooden platform above third base. Picture impulses from the camera were transmitted to a nearby flagpole, where an antenna sent them flying across Manhattan to the 85th floor of the Empire State Building and—lo!—television station W2XBS was on the air with the first telecast of a sports event ever produced in the United States of America. It was—uh—a game between Columbia and Princeton for fourth place in the Ivy League.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!" came the famed bark of Bill Stern that day. He was seated in a top corner of the bleachers, his fedora pulled down to the bridge of his trombone nose. The camera was located behind him, and frequently during the afternoon he flung desperate glances over his shoulder at the hulking machine. "I had no monitor," Stern recalls. "I had no idea where the damned thing was pointing. I never knew whether the thing could keep up with the play or not."
It could not. But like an earnest, clumsy, myopic robot, it tried. Its field of vision was so narrow that it could not shoot both pitcher and batter in the same picture, so it swung constantly back and forth, following the ball to the plate on each pitch—a dizzying, blurry series of demented arcs across the screen. On a hit, the Iconoscope swept its eye doggedly across the landscape, chasing after the ball. Fortunately, at the time there were scarcely 400 working television sets in the U.S.—nearly all of them around New York City. Many were in the offices of RCA, NBC and various ad-agency brass; there was one at the RCA Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair (who can forget the year that the sphere and spire transfixed mankind with its promise of the ultimate in ultramodern living?). Even though sets cost $600—equivalent to $1,600 by today's dollar—the screens were only five to 12 inches in diameter.
Given the diminutive picture and the mad panning of the camera, it was not surprising that a reviewer for The New York Times wrote of that telecast: "The players were best described by observers as appearing 'like white flies' running across the screen. When the ball flashed across the grass it appeared as a comet like white pinpoint. The commentator saved the day, otherwise there would be no way to follow the play or to tell where the ball went...." For the record, the game was won by Princeton 2-1 in the 10th; the first home run on TV was hit by one Kenneth Pill, the Columbia leftfielder, and for the first of what would be a zillion times to come, a director shouted into the earplug of a sports-caster: "Dammit, shut up! If they can see it, don't say it." Yes, even with the primitive equipment at hand, Bill Stern managed to perform as if he were a television announcer as modern as tomorrow. "I had no idea when to keep my big, fat, flapping mouth shut," he says.
In 30 years the world turns perhaps 11,000 times: Bill Stern, now snow-white of fringe and slowed by a heart attack, no longer reigns as Prince of the Air Waves, although he still does 12 radio shows a week for Mutual Broadcasting. That myopic old albatross of a camera has given way to dandy little 56-pounders that a man can carry on his shoulder. And Kenneth Pill, the electric picture's first Sultan of Swat, is an Army warrant officer now stationed in Vietnam. The Day of the White Flies has spun that rapidly into the Epoch of Super Spectator.
Television's annual stake in sports—by the networks alone—has zoomed from zero to $150 million annually in the 30 years since its first telecast. Indeed, the growth of money spent for sports broadcasting is almost beyond belief. For example, in 1936 the Orange Bowl Committee paid CBS $500 to do a radio broadcast of its game; in 1969 NBC paid $500,000 for television rights. In 1947 Ford and Gillette paid $65,000 to televise the entire seven games of the World Series; it now costs $82,000 to buy a single 60-second commercial in a Series telecast.
So much for comparisons from antiquity; it is in the last decade that TV's financial involvement in sport has multiplied at its most frenzied rate, and it is in the last decade that sport has become so totally dependent on television's largess. In 1960 CBS paid $660,000 for rights and production costs at the Rome Olympic Games; recently ABC closed a deal to pay $13.5 million to do the '72 Olympics in Munich—a cost-of-living increase of roughly 2,000%. CBS bought rights to the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley for $50,000. In 1968 ABC paid $2 million for the competition at Grenoble, and for '72 NBC will pay $6.4 million. Without television dollars, the lavish Olympic spectaculars of recent years would be a threadbare facsimile indeed.
Rights to NCAA college football jumped from $3,125,000 in 1960 to $12 million in 1970; network payments for major league baseball have risen from $3,250,000 to $16.6 million in a decade; the combined AFL-NFL schedule from $7.6 million in 1963 to $34.7 million in 1969; network rights for professional golf have gone from less than $150,000 to close to $3 million in 10 years. The list goes on and on.
This cascade of money has made major differences to our games and our gamesmen. Our sports heroes are businessmen now, entrepreneur-athletes. The money flood from TV has allowed them to earn enormous incomes from the sports at which they excel, and then to rise out of the playing field dust to become owners of suburban laundry chains and haberdashery strings and sandwich assembly lines. The money from television has made professional sport an exceedingly attractive proposition, even for the bright young college graduate with ambitions for the corporate life. (What more rewarding career is there in corporate life than chairing the board of your own corporation?) This aura of high pay and button-down working conditions has even improved the caliber of play. "These days an average pro football player pays taxes on more than $30,000 a year, including his off-season income," says pro football boss Pete Rozelle. "Without our television fees our payrolls would be half what they are. We would not be able to attract some fine college athletes who are with us now. They'd be working for General Electric—and we'd be out some of the better players in our league."
Just as the financial horizons in sport have expanded, so have the geographical venues of our major leagues broken past all the traditional boundaries. What were once the farthest backwaters of the land—the Louisiana bayou, the Texas brush prairie, the Minnesota cornfield, the Washington apple valley, the Georgia clayscape—are all now touched with at least the proximity of the big leagues. Granted, the jet airplane must be credited in part for this penetration into the hinterlands, and so must the nation's general affluence, which has put money for tickets at soaring prices into the pockets of most citizens. But it is the unique (if perhaps involuntary) power of television taste makers to homogenize regions and minimize provincial differences that has been the biggest factor in the planting of major league flags in every nook and cranny of America. In the economic structure of professional sport in the '60s it is only after the men of TV deem a town to be a sound market—susceptible to the urging of the tube to buy polyester tires or purified gas or charcoal-filtered cigarettes—it is only after the place receives the electronic-economic seal of approval that would-be franchise owners have a hope of landing a team. It is almost entirely because of the prospects of television-generated dollars that the Boston-Milwaukee Braves are now in Atlanta, the Minneapolis Lakers in Los Angeles, the NFL Chicago Cardinals in St. Louis, the Philadelphia-Kansas City A's in Oakland and so on. And it is essentially for the same reason that a whole host of new nicknames—Bills, Saints, Astros, Blues, Bucks, Pacers—even exists. Today major league franchises for baseball, football, hockey and basketball total 87; a decade ago there were only 42. So the majors now reach coast to coast, border to border (and beyond). And how does this burgeoning garden grow? Pete Rozelle has no doubts: "There are 26 pro football franchises now. Without television, half of them would not exist and the rest would be struggling."
John Fetzer, president of the 1968 world champion Detroit Tigers, has no doubts, either: "There would be no way to keep our name on the front door without TV revenue. No way. The costs of operating a baseball franchise go up more rapidly than we can generate income." And Calvin Griffith, president of the Minnesota Twins, is even more emphatic: "TV is a matter of life and death, that's all. We couldn't operate without it."
The litany is the same nearly everywhere. Without television, owners could not meet the mounting demand for better pay and better pensions, indeed, could not stay solvent.
What, then, has sport sold to television in return for the money it accepts? Has it sacrificed its ethics, its morality, its soul? What has been the price of financial glory?
Perhaps the price is not as high as traditionalists and Cassandras would claim. In fact, the charges exacted by TV may be a bargain when one considers the benefits derived. Admittedly, there have been some uneasy tamperings in the name of electronics. Yes, it is true that the PGA changed its championships from the classic man-to-man confrontation of match play to medal play back in 1958 to satisfy TV's needs. It is true that once upon a time the National Basketball Association was so eager to please TV that it risked the rage of entire churchly multitudes all over the West Coast by scheduling some Los Angeles Laker home games at 11 a.m. on Sundays for the unexpressed purpose of picking up television viewers in the East, where it was 2 p.m. It is true that the National Hockey League has on occasion scheduled brunch-time games at 1 p.m. Sunday to help out television's schedule makers. It is true that in the 1967 Super Bowl in Los Angeles there were two kickoffs for the second half because the NBC network was in the middle of a commercial when the Green Bay Packers first booted to the Kansas City Chiefs. Yes, it is true that the 1968 heavyweight title elimination fight between Jerry Quarry and Thad Spencer in Oakland was held at the ridiculous boxing hour of 2:30 in the afternoon so that the fight would fit the programming needs of ABC. And yes, it is true that major colleges have shuffled their football schedules like prime-time rate cards when lured with an opportunity to get the old alma mater into the nation's living rooms. Finally, it is quite probable that on numerous occasions—perhaps even hundreds—commercial time-outs have affected games by altering the morale, momentum or metaphysics of a team. All of this has been done in the name of commercial TV, and none of it serves the exactitudes of pure sport. That is true.
Yet as both sport and the sport fan have adapted (or given way) to TV and its demands, it has become increasingly difficult to build up righteous indignation over such occurrences. Sport has thrust itself squarely into the marketplace of America by its presence—and its dependence—on television. Thus it has accepted, at least implicitly, the right of commerce to impose its compromises. In turn, the sport fan has no real choice but to accept that influence, since he would not get half so much—via TV set or franchise expansion—without it. Pragmatism, this is called.
Once upon a time a man named Sylvester (Pat) Weaver was president of the NBC network, and he uttered a sentence that has since become both axiom and apologia for television realists: "We are first of all in the advertising business, for that is where our revenue comes from." All right, so sport is part and parcel of television's primary business. Our heroes pitch right along with the professional barkers—Ara Parseghian plugs Ford, O.J. and Jean-Claude sell Chevrolets, Billy Casper and Willie Mays drive for Chrysler, Bart Starr peddles Pepsi. And $10,000 for one Schick shave, Joe? Yes, it has come to this: our sport is staged these days before a great blinking billboard of television commercials.
There are purists, romanticists, idealists, freethinkers and perhaps a few small boys who are offended by the idea of supersalesmanship and high-octane merchandising and silky persuasion becoming an intrinsic part of the world of sport. They are not pragmatists, and they do not see the playing field as a logical extension of the marketplace. They do not fancy a quarterback doing huckster's duty for shaving cream. But this is not the finest hour for romantics or idealists; this is the era of Super Spectator, and this is strictly a business proposition. Anyway, even an idealist has to step out for a cold drink of water now and then.
It is the major television networks of America that form the primary source of support and exposure for sport; the Columbia Broadcasting System...the National Broadcasting Company...the American Broadcasting Company.... Their very names ring with glamour, power, wealth, efficiency. They are the marrow of technological know-how and corporate class and MassCom togetherness. Yes, there they stand—ABC, NBC, CBS—each with its skyscraper set in the lean straight line along the same side of the street in the same five-block stretch of Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Broadcast Row, some call it, or Communications Alley, or Logorrhea Road. Theirs is the greatest mass communications system in history. The men in those buildings can spin an electronic web as deep as space and as wide as the world, link Paris and Poughkeepsie in the wink of an eye, bring the moon to Akron, give birth to Super Spectator a dozen times a week.
It is easy to have a relatively warped idea of network sports executives, for they are frequently presented on the sports pages as grasping, avaricious, ambitious men, Sidney Greenstreets with season boxes, all bent upon plundering our games for their own nefarious ends. There is no love or objectivity wasted by sportswriters on TV chiefs, and they are frequently referred to in print as hucksters, panjandrums or moguls—the kind of pejorative labels that don't get stuck on, say, executives of AT&T or Standard Oil. Since these are the men deciding what Super Spectator will and will not get to see—a position of omnipotence in sports never before approached or so much as imagined—it is worth examining them in their natural environments.
CBS is a hulking, haughty corporate monolith, sound as the Episcopal Church, rich as Croesus, Inc. and in reasonably good standing with an immense mass of Americans who like the cut of Walter Cronkite's jib. The network has diverse investments, including the New York Yankees, which were purchased in 1964. The CBS Sports Department, which has nothing at all to do with the Yankees, is headed by William C. MacPhail, 51, who bears the title vice-president, CBS-TV Sports. A son of the irreverent Larry MacPhail (founder of night baseball; front-office chief of the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees), he was a public-relations man for the Kansas City Athletics in 1955 when CBS hired him to be its No. 1 sports mogul.
Bill MacPhail does not look much like a huckster, a panjandrum or even Sidney Greenstreet. He is a tall man, slightly stooped and uncommonly pale, with blue eyes, gray hair and a gentle manner that seems apt for a head usher at—well, at an Episcopal church. But, like most of his CBS sports aides, he is a team member in good standing at the upstairs bar of Toots Shor and a frequent winner of Password games there. MacPhail spends $40 million a year to put sports programs on his network. Included in the events CBS presents are the full NFL schedule, the Masters, horse racing's Triple Crown, CBS Golf Classic, the Cotton and Sun Bowls, the NIT basketball tournament, AAU track (both a financial and esthetic disaster this year) and NHL hockey (which lost 750,000 CBS dollars last season).
And how does the CBS sports empire fare? "We're doing great if we break even," says MacPhail. "Sport is a bad investment, generally speaking. The network needs it for prestige, for image, to satisfy the demands and desires of our affiliated stations. The rights have gotten so costly that we do sports as a public service rather than a profit maker." Surprising? At first modest blush, yes, but "public service" is a vital TV phrase, an essential facet of image. There is vast non-net profit for a network if its stations can assure the Federal Communications Commission that they deserve their license to operate because they spend quite a lot of time in pursuit of doing good, and a cancellation of good wholesome sports programming would certainly not impress the FCC or Spiro Agnew.
For years—before he was named two months ago to be the new head of the American Basketball Association—the demimogul at CBS sports was Jack Dolph, 41, a stocky, quick-witted fellow with features not unlike an Ivy League Billy Batson grown middle-aged. Dolph's title was sports director, and his experience left him with certain convictions that he did not hesitate to state. "We have a guilty conscience in this business over the general run of schlock we put on the air," he once said. "If we didn't feel guilty, we'd cut back on news, which loses money. And we'd cut back on sports, which loses money. Hell, profit is the reason CBS is in business. I suppose we'd put the Roller Derby on in prime time if it made a buck. We have to balance that approach with our conscience...."
NBC is a rich, grandiose corporation, too, a gold-dust twin to CBS. Its sports department is headed by Carl Lindemann Jr., 47, a network vice-president who was once associate producer of The Kale Smith Hour and later in charge of program sales and VP for special projects. Lindemann is an energetic man, flushed of face, a rapid-fire raconteur with great charm and an unusual network executive in that he is able to sit through a four-hour lunch and not hit the bottom of his second Bloody Mary. Lindemann was made the top sports man in 1963 by NBC's then-president, Robert Kintner. "I told Bob that all I knew about sports was I liked tailgate picnics at the Princeton-Yale game," says Lindemann. "Kintner said, 'Hell, you don't have to have been a high school quarterback to run this operation.' Well, he was right. I still like tailgate picnics, and compared to most show-biz types, I really like the people in sports."
Under Lindemann, NBC carries the AFL (indeed, the network's money has moved the AFL into solvency), the full major league baseball package, the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Senior Bowl, golf tournaments such as the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Wimbledon and the NCAA basketball championships. The annual expenditure is about equal to CBS's $40 million; the annual profit is nonexistent. There is concern over this at NBC, and Lindemann's assistant, Sports Director diet Simmons, 41, a cool and casual figure in tinted specs and mod suits, says: "We've been going along with the prestige of these events for quite a while now. Well, maybe the time has come for profit-and-loss to come into vogue. Sure, we may have helped the AFL to survive with our money, but our primary interest is in giving the network balanced programming, not to save the sport of professional football...."
ABC has been for years a bedraggled shadow of the other two major networks. With rare exceptions, its ratings were lower, its advertising revenues less, its profits hardly heady. But in one area ABC is playing its hardest to be No. 1. At huge expense, and with no small imaginative effort, the ABC Sports Department has recently acquired an impressive array of events. Included are the 1972 Olympics in Munich for $13.5 million, pro football's Monday-night plunge into prime-time television next fall ($8.6 million for 1970) and renewal of the NCAA college football package ($12 million a year for two years). These will be added to ABC's Wide World of Sports—long the best of the weekly sports variety shows—and The American Sportsman, the Sugar Bowl, the U.S. and British Opens, the PGA and 10 other golf tournaments, the Professional Bowlers Tour and finally NBA basketball, which right now is considered the hottest property in sport television. (Variety blurted not long ago: "Even sports execs at the other webs agree basketball is on the grow!")
The president of ABC Sports is Roone Arledge, 38, a ruddy, redheaded fellow just coming up on his portly period. His face has a cherubic glow, but enormous shrewdness, an iron will and a croupier's cool are masked by those rosy cheeks. Among his peers at rival networks, Arledge is described variously as "cunning," as a "money-be-damned big spender," as "heap big speaker with forked tongue" and as "he who is too clever by half...." To those who have not been outwitted, one-upped or two-timed by Arledge, he seems the soul of candor, a notably articulate man with a clear insight into the strictures of his chosen profession:
"Most of what TV does wrong is done to generate more dollars for owners," he says. "If we cram 18 commercials into a football game it's because the owners and the leagues are so damned greedy in what they ask for rights. Sport used to be run as a hobby by owners; now it's a tax shelter for a lot of them.... Sport is a business, not a religion, and there is no sacred way things must be done. Sport is a set of created circumstances—artificial circumstances—set up to frustrate a man in pursuit of a goal. He has to have certain skills to overcome those obstacles—or even to challenge them. And people who don't have those skills cheer him and admire him. It is that simple. Most criticism about TV and sport does not concern itself with ethics or morality. People complain about TV as a nuisance—cameras on the field, commercial breaks, unusual schedules. Of course, I must say that when NBC made them kick off twice at the half in the '67 Super Bowl—that was going a little far."
A fourth network—the Hughes Sports Network, Inc.—is competing, albeit slightly, with the larger three. Bought last year for some $16 million by that fabled invisible man, Howard Hughes, this network has been the subject of much dark rumor of late. Still, little has happened. The operation continues under the administrative control of Richard E. Bailey, 58, a genial technician who patched Sports Network, Inc. together 14 years ago. The Hughes people did bid to get pro football's Monday-night package, and when they lost out to ABC there were great wheezes of relief along Broadcast Row. As one uneasy executive said: "We don't know what Hughes is up to, but we think of him as a snake lying under a rock." Hardly had he uttered the sentence when the executive requested that the words not be attributed to him by name. For a moment there seemed to be the sound of hissing in the room.
So there stand the networks. If you were to seek a thumbnail summary of their sport philosophies—one that most TV executives would readily agree to as realistic, even if they might be reluctant to shout it from the antenna tops-you probably could settle for the considered words of NBC's Chet Simmons: "We really don't give 10 seconds of thought a year to how we affect sport; we're in the broadcast business." Yet the fact is—until pay TV or the end of the world intervenes—the fortunes and the future of sport rest with commercial television. The Super Bowl and the World Series are right there cheek by cathode tube with Felix the Cat and reruns of Mister Ed. As Roone Arledge isn't afraid to say: "So many sports organizations have built their entire budgets around television that if we ever withdrew the money the whole structure would just collapse."
The marriage—electronics lawfully wired to athletics—seems convenient enough now, even comfortable as it slips smoothly past its third decade. But there was bitter crisis, desperate chaos and pleas for divorce in the early years, none of which has been forgotten. Once the honeymoon of those early experimental glimpses on W2XBS has ended, the white heat of reality burned hot-wire scars into the body athletic.
Commercial television's first year of serious operation was 1948. Factories were producing 140,000 sets a month and America was just beginning to devote its leisure time to watching Milton Berle, John Cameron Swayze and Howdy Doody through the snow on the set. Super Spectator was in his infancy then, but sport was a major portion of TV fare. Wrestling from Jamaica Arena and the Roller Derby and boxing, baseball, football and harness racing were beamed for hours at a time—hours at a time, that is, if the camera was working. In those daring days the central source of TV vision was the bulky orthicon camera, affectionately called Dr. Cyclops by its wondering crews. It was quite common for the Doctor to blink, blur and shut down his one good eye before a show was over. No one minded much, half a show being much more exciting than none, but there were many nights when a 50% operational record for Dr. Cyclops was considered a praiseworthy performance.
As equipment improved in the '50s, the impact of TV on sport began to build enormously. It was a cash windfall for everyone. But....
The National Collegiate Athletic Association was the first sports body to notice that this accelerating force just might have the inevitability of death in its momentum, that exposure could be a killing thing. The discovery took no deep thinking; it was more like getting a place-kicker's foot between the eyes. From 1949 to 1953 attendance at college football games dropped by 2,970,000. Chilled, the NCAA formed a TV committee and instituted rigid rules for limiting the number of football telecasts. That righted the situation, although it took 10 years for attendance at college football games to rise again to what it had been in 1949.
But other sports—more acquisitive and less perceptive—did not sense the fatal flaw in the constant exposure. Saddest of all, perhaps, was the brutal fate of boxing. The first TV days of the sweet science were spent in a happy orgy. In some areas boxing was on nearly every night of the week, and so popular that there were riots around store windows that had the fights on display sets. There were bouts from the Garden and Eastern Parkway Arena and St. Nick's and Sunnyside Gardens. Gillette and Pabst Blue Ribbon bought scads of time, and there were fighters battling before network audiences two, even three nights a week. Pool-hall pugs, teen-age Palookas, guys whose uncles were TV cameramen, anyone could fight on television. And paydays were good, at least $4,000 for the fighter. Between 1946 and 1964—the year when the last regular network boxing show, Friday Night Fight of the Week, faded from sight—there were hundreds of fights on television. And, as Chris Dundee says, "There always had to be a loser, and you couldn't bring back a loser because the sponsors wouldn't take him." Meanwhile, nobody supported club boxing anymore, and 250 of the 300 small fight clubs in America shut their doors between 1952 and 1959. The result was no fresh talent. There was nothing left except old losers by the hundreds, and soon boxing lay near death, not to rise again for years. (The return has been cautious, often by way of theater television.)
Another case study worth pursuing is the relationship between baseball and the electronic eye. Much has happened to the National Pastime in the 30 years since an Ebbets Field game between the Dodgers and the Reds was telecast to breathless dozens watching on experimental sets. Baseball was the flagship American sport in the first 50 years of the century, an institution that ranked along with Old Glory, Mom, H.V. Kaltenborn and the rumble seat. Nevertheless, until 1958 the major leagues extended no farther west than Kansas City, no farther south than Washington: only the Northeast quadrant of the country had ready access to the best of the sport, and millions of hardcore baseball fanatics went to their deaths in toothless old age without ever laying eyes on a live big-league game. In 1939 the major leagues drew only 8,977,000 spectators. But there was much more to baseball than that, for the bushes were alive with ballplayers. The minor leagues thrived, and people cared about the Albuquerque Cardinals and the Sacramento Solons and the Sanford Lookouts. More than 15 million attended minor league games in '39, and there lay the soul of the National Pastime—in the small cities and rural towns from coast to coast.
Ten years later the minor leagues were even more a phenomenon of mass appeal: they drew 42 million people in 1949. But now came television, working its massive wonders in bringing the major leagues into the parlors of all those fans in Gopher Prairie. Now they could "see" their big-time heroes for the first time. And free. Minor league attendance figures plummeted from the high-water 42 million in '49 to 13 million in '59, and to 10 million in '69. So the game withered at its grass roots. Grandstands were dismantled, asphalt was ladled thick across the old infield and the cash register checkouts of A & P now ring where home plate once was nailed down. The number of minor league clubs dropped from 488 in 1949 to 155 today. Television pushed the minors so far into the periphery of American life that they fell right off to oblivion.
And what of the majors? Gripped by the frenzy that accompanies any gold rush, owners grabbed at every nugget offered by television. Clubs were soon putting almost every game they played on the tube. The result was disastrous. From a 1948 high of 20,920,000, attendance fell 32% to a low of 14,383,000 in 1953. Only the emergency transfusion of fresh franchises opening in Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Kansas City stemmed the tide. Some teams skirted close to suicide with their TV policies. To cite one chilling example, between 1948 and 1956 the Cleveland Indians won a World Series and a pennant and had a string of fine teams, led by the splendid pitching partnership of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia. But the Indians televised many of their home games in that period, and their attendance dropped a staggering 67%.
Symptomatic of the effect of the violent forces playing on baseball was the electrostatic fate of the Braves—the Boston Braves, the Milwaukee Braves and the Atlanta Braves. In 1948 the Braves of Boston won the National League pennant and drew 1,455,000 to their games, a season's attendance record. Dizzy with success, the management sold (for some $40,000) the right to televise all home games in the 1949-50 seasons and nearly all home games in 1951-52. The Braves finished in the first division three of those years, but attendance fell from that 1,455,000 in 1948 to 281,278 in 1952, a drop of 81%!
Something had to be done, so Owner Lou Perini packed his belongings and ventured west to Milwaukee. There, much the wiser after the horror of Boston, he clamped a vacuum-tight lid on his team, allowing no television at all of Brave games. None. He even insisted that the state of Wisconsin be blacked out when the Braves appeared on network telecasts, and it was only due to the supreme prize of the World Series in 1957 and 1958 that citizens of Wisconsin ever saw their team on television. This made no friends for Perini, but he stood firm against the outcries, saying, "We have come to believe that TV can saturate the minds of the fans with baseball. We would like very much to guard against that."
All through the '50s Perini refused to relent. Then in 1962 he eased his stand—ever so slightly—by allowing 15 away games to be televised back to Milwaukee. Now the electric camel had its neon nose in the tent. By 1964 there were 30 Brave games on TV. In 1965 Perini sold the club to a new group of owners, very up-to-date and knowledgeable about the mysteries and the money to be found in MassCom. This group immediately saw something that had gone hitherto unnoticed by Perini or by Milwaukee in general: the city of Milwaukee was geographically unfit for major league baseball. Right. The town was just in the wrong place on the planet to be in the big leagues. Milwaukee was fenced in by Chicago to the south and Minneapolis to the west, and the baseball TV market areas of those towns made the location of Milwaukee untenable for the Braves. Never mind that there were 950,000 paid admissions in '64, that the ball park was in fine condition, that civic loyalties were building after a lull. Never mind, because the new management of the Braves had a golden guarantee from Atlanta, a promise that $1,250,000 a year would be forthcoming for the TV-radio rights to Brave games. That was the kind of geography the management could understand. Dixie won its first major league baseball team because it offered a huge virginal television market for baseball. One has to pity poor Milwaukee. The camel had swallowed the tent.
The point of this example is not so much to lament for Milwaukee (after all, Milwaukee's sorrow is also Atlanta's joy) as to emphasize the vast influence that television has had on a sport so dear to the nation. By destroying the minor leagues, television cast a pall over all of baseball, yet it has hardly put the sport in its grave.
Major league attendance in 1969 was more than 27 million, a new record, although it is based on 24 clubs rather than 20. The Super Spectators watching the World Series averaged 23 million per game. And NBC's new $50 million contract for three years with the major leagues is up 63% over the previous deal. Nobody pays that kind of money for a corpse.
What has happened is that television has caused a change in baseball's position in the pecking order of sport. John Fetzer of the Detroit Tigers sees a generation gap in baseball fans: "The Under 30s tend to be more attracted by pro football, but once they're 32 or so they start to become interested in baseball because it's more of a thinking man's game, and when they're 40 they're hooked and by the time they've hit 50 they're dyed-in-the-wool fans. Baseball has to realize that there is this new equation in sport, and television has had a lot to do with the change. We must understand that we'll never have the show to ourselves again...."
Indeed not. Thanks to essential plug in essential socket, darkened parlor and that light in the electronic window, the country has a new sports passion.
Pro football: The zoom lens captures the sport, against a back ground of double crosses, secret meetings and multimillions.