When last we left Miami Attorney Ellis Rubin, it was 1972 and he was battling Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL over a 75-mile television blackout of Super Bowl VI, played in New Orleans' Sugar Bowl. That action led to the so-called stadium sellout rule—which the league says it will observe again this season—and it was a worthy prelude to Rubin's latest crusade. This time he hopes to prevent a 200-mile TV and radio blackout of the Sept. 15 Ali-Spinks title fight in the New Orleans Superdome, a scheme that could leave some seven million folks in the dark on that Friday night.
It was a matter of megabucks. Along comes a group of businessmen called Louisiana Sports, Inc., which guarantees promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank $3 million if he will stage the fight in New Orleans. That sum assured. Arum then sells the U.S. broadcast rights to ABC for $5 million. Superdome tickets are scaled from $200 for what will be the world's biggest ringside—some 15,000 field-level seats extending for 40 rows—to $25 for the faraway stands. With this configuration, a sellout of 82,000 seats would bring the Louisiana businessmen a $7 million gross. Then comes the zinger: to make all this possible, the promoters impose the 200-mile blackout, with ABC as the reluctant tagalong. In addition to all of Louisiana, the blackout will spill over into three neighboring states and such sizable cities as Jackson, Miss., Mobile, Ala. and Pensacola, Fla., and for the first time ever radio would be shut off as well. This was last May; in early August a Louisiana citizens group put in a call for Rubin.
The Ralph Nader-like, public-advocate role that this is guarantees that a man will get his lumps, and Ellis Rubin has them aplenty. In his years of attacking the NFL blackouts, Rubin filed 11 lawsuits and lost all of them, but managed to attain his goal because the publicity he generated prompted the Congress to intervene. "It's doing it the hard way," Rubin says, "but someone has to do it." No sooner had Rubin popped up in New Orleans, working without a fee, than Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards told him to go home and mind his own business. Then the local promoters became as stirred up as the citizens. Sherman Copelin of Louisiana Sports said some $2.7 million in tickets had been sold. It would take at least $3.5 million to break even, he said, and Rubin's campaign could only hurt sales. (By the end of last week, total sales were said to be up to $3.3 million.) When some of the local citizens proposed a protest march on the Superdome, Rubin advised against it, citing "threats that have been made. There have been acts of violence around the Superdome." There also had been talk of lawsuits from Rubin's group, which exercised Louisiana Sports President Don Hubbard even further. "The next time that Florida dude opens his mouth about lifting the blackout, I'm going to sue him," Hubbard said. "Most definitely there will be a blackout." Said Copelin, "We are on sound legal ground; I assure you we have some of the most sound legal minds in the country."
But Rubin and his associates think the legal ground is shaky. "I can't understand how people who are paying for the very stadium in which the fight will be held can be denied seeing this event," he said. "As for the governor's request, I would, indeed, go home, except that Pensacola is blacked out, too, and I'm from Florida. If Governor Edwards would speak up for the people, I would not have to be here."
Rubin scoffs at the theory that lifting the blackout would hurt the live gate. "Not true," he says. "As we proved in fighting the Super Bowl blackouts that eventually were lifted, people are coming from all over the world to see this one event. The promoters will make the greatest profit for any single sporting event in history on this fight. I don't think anyone should be required to guarantee a promoter that every seat in the house must be sold. I think the rights of the people should prevail."
Meanwhile, ABC and affiliate stations that would be blacked out are caught in the middle. "Of course we'd love to carry the fight," says Bob Olson, general manager of New Orleans' WVUE-TV. "This 200-mile radius is most unusual. By not carrying it, we're losing money." In New York, John Martin, vice-president of programming for ABC Sports, expressed concern about the extent of the blackout. "We don't know why it had to be so large, but Arum's agreement was with the Louisianans, and the limits were already set," said Martin. "It's always the guy concerned with the gate who controls the blackout area." In its press releases, ABC has carefully avoided the phrase "nationwide telecast."
The next couple of weeks will determine the outcome of this latest Battle of New Orleans. For the moment, the Federal Trade Commission is looking the other way. "Go see the Federal Communications Commission," it told Rubin. The FCC, in turn, told his group in New Orleans to go to the FTC. But Rubin's campaign has now stirred the interest of U.S. Attorneys in the four major cities involved and three of the four state attorneys general. If they don't sue, says Rubin, he will. And as a last resort, he plans to conduct a radio talkathon in New Orleans this week to drum up more support. It might turn out, he says, that the fighters themselves could turn the trick.
"Leon Spinks has already spoken out against the blackout," Rubin says. "He would like to have a bigger audience see him fight. But Ali is still the big guy in terms of draw. If Ali should refuse to fight unless the blackout was lifted, that would do it. If Ali is listening, I hope he'll call me."