The dramatic deal in which Pete Rose moved from the Cincinnati Reds to the Philadelphia Phillies is still sending ripples through baseball, from the hot stove to the bank vault. The transaction has been widely discussed since it was announced last Dec. 3, but one aspect that hasn't attracted much analysis has to do with the crucial role that television played in making it all happen.
The influence of TV—specifically, the influence of WPHL-TV, the Phillies' local outlet—was unprecedented. The charismatic power of Rose as a force in raising the ratings of WPHL-TV's baseball telecasts, and consequently the station's advertising revenues, was paramount in striking the deal. The motives were the same that prevail when a TV station hires a hot newscaster or talk-show host: the buying of a star to get a quick jump of a point or two in the ratings.
Here's how the Reds' Charlie Hustle became the Phillies' Charlie Huckster:
Last Nov. 30, as Rose was in the final day or so of his hectic Lear jet odyssey of selling himself to one eager club after another, the Phillies decided to drop out of the bidding. The club owner, Ruly Carpenter, had agreed to a $2.2 million salary for a three-year pact but had drawn the line there, and Rose had better offers. Bill Giles, the executive vice-president of the Phillies, recalls, "I was trying to figure some way that might show Ruly how we could sign Pete at a higher figure and still make money. It occurred to me that if we could get Channel 17 to put up more money, we could make the club income look better and I could prove to Ruly that, dollarwise, the deal made sense."
January 22, 1979
The Phillies had just signed an unusual (though not unique) three-year extension of its contract with WPHL-TV. It gave the station basic rights to televise 75 games for $1,350,000 a year, but also gave the ball club a 50-50 split of ad revenues after they had totaled a certain amount. (Neither the Phillies nor the station will name that figure, but as later events indicate, it meant a lot of added revenue to the ball club.) What Giles did now was to ask WPHL-TV if it could guarantee a flat $600,000 more in 1979 as the club's share of extra ad revenues that would presumably be generated by the presence of Pete Rose.
At first, station management was skeptical. Then Gene McCurdy, the general manager, decided to ask his salesmen what they thought Rose might do for ad sales. "They talked to some of their customers," says McCurdy. "and they came back most encouraged. They found that Pete Rose playing for the Phillies would do two things: 1) he would certainly raise viewing levels and this would be translated into an increased demand for commercial time and, 2) his presence would have a strong emotional effect on certain clients—people who would buy time partly because they could then see themselves as being instrumental in getting Pete Rose to play for the Phillies. Everything isn't numbers in this business. Some things transcend numbers, and the value of Pete Rose to certain local advertisers is something more significant than numbers."
Still, it was cold numbers that McCurdy offered the owners of WPHL-TV when he made his pitch that the station should guarantee the bulk of Rose's proposed $800,000 annual salary. As it turned out, the Providence Journal Co. had bought the station only days earlier; insiders say that the former owners of WPHL-TV would have said no. But the Journal Co. said yes. And so did Pete Rose a couple of days later. And here is where the unspecified "certain amount" becomes important: according to one source at the station, WPHL-TV guaranteed $600,000 a year for three years, not one. Rose's $800,000-a-year contract runs one year beyond that; presumably the Phillies and WPHL-TV will cross that fourth-year bridge when they come to it.
Never before in baseball have TV ratings and revenues so directly influenced a superstar's change of team. In the past, stadium attendance has been the principal motive, and in this regard, Rose already has worked wonders for the Phillies. The team sold only 15,000 season tickets in 1978; 18,000-plus have been projected for 1979. But filling seats in the stadium is no longer the most compelling reason for producing winning teams or for buying charismatic stars, particularly in a city like Philadelphia where baseball attendance has been very high—an average of 2.6 million for the past three years—and getting additional bodies into the seats isn't easy. As Giles says, "We hope attendance will keep rising, but the expectation that television revenues are going to increase a lot more is much more valid than ticket receipts."
Giles wasn't the only baseball executive to apply TV clout to the wooing of Pete Rose. Ted Turner, the owner of the Atlanta Braves and, significantly, of WTCG, the powerful cable-TV outfit which is received in some 45 states, had offered Rose $1 million a year for "three years, four years, five years, whatever you want." The offer was real, all right, but Rose wanted to play for the Phillies all along.
The impact of TV on the national pastime has been visible for years: gaudy uniforms, a critical playoff game held in a downpour, Arctic Circle weather for most World Series games—all these things have come to pass because of TV and they are now generally accepted. So, too, will be the buying and selling of superstars based on TV ratings and ad revenues. It may be good for baseball, it may be bad, but now that it has happened once with a player of Rose's immense stature, surely it will happen again. And again. And again.