FACT: Television money is essential to the successful operation of pro franchises.
Back in the days of Buffalo Bob and Uncle Miltie, when Pete Rozelle was cranking out press releases for the Los Angeles Rams and Franklin Mieuli was hustling ads for a San Francisco brewery, sports moguls had a notion that the new-fangled contraption called television might be a good way to publicize their product. But who could afford to pay for it?
Then Mieuli, whose brewery account sponsored 49ers games on radio, approached team owner Tony Morabito in the early 1950s with a proposition: why not telecast the 49ers' home-and-home series with the Rams? One game would be beamed to L.A., one to S.F., and the host team's game would be blacked out locally. Pete would beat the drum in L.A., Franklin would handle the hype in S.F., and who knows, both teams might wind up selling a few more tickets. Mieuli explained that he could only offer $10,000 for the package but....
Morabito was incredulous. "You mean you'll give me $5,000 to show us here in Northern California when we're in Los Angeles? Hell, I ought to pay you for the exposure." So he gave back his half of the 10 grand, feeling like a profiteer and a philanthropist all at once.
Today Mieuli owns the Golden State Warriors and Rozelle owns television—and no one is giving anything back. Indeed, the staggering $656-million contract that Pete the Shark engineered with the three networks late last year is easily the biggest deal in TV history. And talk about your double whammies; the TV bonanza is not only the NFL's largest source of income, but as Tony Morabito noted, it is also its greatest means of promotion. Football gets hours and hours of free publicity that other advertisers paid for at an average of $70,000 a minute last season.
Six hundred and fifty-six million dollars. How to wrestle with such a monster number? To say that it exceeds the gross advertising revenues of all TV sports in 1976 is just a beginning. It is the equivalent of 44 Louisiana Purchases or the national debt of Canada in 1915. But what does it mean in the ledger books, on the field and for the future?
NFL owners and their envious peers in the other leagues have it figured. So vital are network TV revenues to their financial well-being that they know to the decimal point what everyone's share of the bounty is. The bosses of the NHL find their cuts achingly easy to compute. They all come out to zero. Having lost its national TV contract in 1975 because of low ratings, hockey is like an urchin with his nose pressed to the picture tube. What he sees inside are the network contracts of the other leagues—all of them for four years. Meanwhile in the 1977-78 season the NHL had to make do with a piddling sum derived from a one-year deal it had with a string of independent stations.
The TV dimout in Kansas City was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the A's left for Oakland in 1968. Their move netted an additional $800,000 a year in broadcast money, as did the Braves' hop from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
The future? Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, claims to be prescient. "I have seen the future," he says. "It measures 19 inches diagonally." And comes with a monthly bill. Most owners see pay TV as the electromagnetic wave of the future. It is no accident that several of them—Jim Fitzgerald (Bucks), John Fetzer (Tigers), Ted Turner (Braves, Hawks), Jack Kent Cooke (Redskins Lakers, Kings)—have substantial interests in cable and pay TV companies, lying in wait for the day when, as Fitzgerald says, "cable TV becomes a real source of income."
Already several teams are airing some of their home games over cable television. Vibrations of struggles to come occurred last October when Cablevision, which operates the nation's largest single cable system, balked at what it said was Madison Square Garden's coercive attempt to boost the price for the Knick and Ranger home games from $300,000 to $500,000 a season, and decided not to show the games to its 75,000 subscribers in Nassau County.
Five baseball teams are currently dabbling in pay TV, and Bowie Kuhn has encouraged the owners to explore how it "can serve as an effective supplement to conventional television."
"Pay TV will not be a supplement when it comes in full force," predicted Joe D'Adamo, SI's Baltimore correspondent, after discussing pay TV with sports entrepreneurs in his area. "It will be the main source of baseball's revenue. The thing to bear in mind is that only a tiny fraction of the games is now shown on commercial TV. So baseball would not be robbing the public of anything. It would be giving, at a price, the citizens of Boston a chance to watch the Dodgers play the Reds in Los Angeles, something Bostonians now have no way of doing. Wild prosperity may be just around the corner, and if Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer last long enough, they could be the first to get $100,000 a performance."
No way, says the NFL Players Association's Ed Garvey, stressing that public resistance to widespread pay TV would be so strong that "I doubt that Congress will ever tolerate it. If Rozelle ruled that next year's Super Bowl will be on pay TV, it would take less than 24 hours for an opposing bill to go through Congress." Still, last year a California producer offered the NFL $400 million for the rights to telecast the playoffs and Super Bowl for the next five years on pay TV. The dough is there, and so is the desire in every pro sport to plug into the new money machine. Stay tuned.
At present, TV's impact on pro sports can be gauged by the fact that last year's National League pennant was decided in a rainstorm that would have prompted Noah to break out his hammer. League President Chub Feeney, the man who refused to call the fifth Dodger-Phillie game lest the gods of TV scheduling be disturbed, suggests he was powerless. J'accuse, he says, pointing at a TV set: "The upheaval in sports is primarily caused by that box. Without television in today's market, few clubs would survive."
The dependency on a power outside the game—or the "godfather" as some owners refer to the network that televises their games—is disturbing. With football's TV income exceeding its gate receipts for the first time this season, teams could play in empty stadiums and still make a profit. This conjures up visions of pro football turning into a "studio sport," Donny and Marie in hip pads.
More realistically, says the former president of a WHA team, "It is going to reach the limit where, say, a motor company finds that exorbitant advertising rates are no longer to its benefit. When advertisers quit, networks quit, and when networks quit, a league dependent on TV revenue will be jeopardized."
The Trail Blazers' Harry Glickman sums up the most common laments about sports as a break between commercials. "I think it's wrong to have phony timeouts in hockey on the pretext that they are fixing the ice. I think it's wrong to have a two-minute warning in football. It's artificial. If a coach doesn't know when it gets down to two minutes, he should be fired. I think it's wrong to play a championship baseball game in a rainstorm. I think it's wrong for TV to tell us that we should start an NBA playoff game at 10:30 in the morning. Despite the millions of dollars, we can't let TV run our business."
The trouble with Harry, some of his colleagues apparently feel, is that he does not know on which side his bread is buttered. "Without the CBS money, we're all in trouble," says 76er General Manager Pat Williams. "It behooves us to cooperate. We'll move game times or fans. It's not always pleasant, but it has to be done." Or as Jerry Colangelo, general manager of the Phoenix Suns, says, "If TV wants us to play at 4 a.m., we'll just have to leave early wake-up calls."