The fledgling United States Football League (SI, May 24) has landed a network TV contract, a breakthrough that gives the USFL instant credibility. None other than Roone Arledge, the ranking genius and eternal innovator of network news and sports, will be shelling out $22 million of ABC's money for the privilege of covering the upstart league's first two seasons, which will run from March through June beginning in 1983. What's more, Arledge had to outhustle NBC to get the deal, thus creating the remarkable and unprecedented spectacle of a network bidding war over rights to a league that won't even play its first game for another nine months. Under the terms of the contract, during the USFL's inaugural season ABC will carry 17 regular-season games—one in prime time, the others on Sunday afternoons—plus two playoff games and the league championship game.
The tie-in with ABC will undoubtedly make it easier for the USFL to attract players and coaches, not to mention fans. It should also make deals for the use of stadiums easier to close. Perhaps best of all, it will enable the USFL to be flexible—and less desperate—in arranging a supplemental package of national cable (or superstation) and local telecasts. Mike Trager, the USFL's TV consultant and the man who negotiated the ABC contract for the league, says, "Now we can look for quality exposure in our other TV arrangements. We're not forced to go for the biggest money. For example, even if the income is less, we might go for over-the-air local channels because they're received in many more homes than most local cable services. Our criterion is no longer only money—and that's a great advantage."
Not that the money is unimportant. USFL clubs, like those in the NFL, will share all TV revenues equally, and each will receive a tidy sum. The ABC deal will produce about $900,000 per season for each of the USFL's 12 franchises, and league officials expect to secure cable and local TV contracts worth another $600,000 per annum per team. The $1.5 million-per-team total is a pittance, of course, compared to the $14.2 million that each NFL club will receive from that league's lavish new three-network package—but then, the NFL is light years ahead of all other pro sports leagues. This includes baseball, which pools its network TV revenues but not receipts from local telecasts and, as a consequence, has huge disparities in income among individual teams. For example, while the Montreal Expos' success in tapping virtually the entire Canadian market has swollen their TV income to a near-NFLish $10 million a year, the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers, all of which operate in TV tank towns, get only $3 million a year each. In the NBA, another league that doesn't share local broadcast revenues, there may be one or two established franchises—the Indiana Pacers, for instance—whose annual income from television is less than the $1.5 million that each USFL club stands to take in. Indeed, the average broadcast revenues in the NBA work out to barely $2 million per team, and that includes TV-rich clubs like the Celtics and Lakers. It's also important to note that the USFL will have lower travel expenses and generally lower player salaries than either baseball or the NBA; the USFL brass is thinking in terms of club payrolls in the neighborhood of $2 million vs. roughly $5 million in baseball and $3 million or more for a typical NBA club. The comparable figure in the NFL is at least $4 million.
June 6, 1982
None of this guarantees that the USFL will automatically become a staple of the American sports diet. Even Arledge cautions that the USFL may not be an instant hit in the ratings, saying, "Given time and given exposure, we expect the ratings to grow." And even if the ratings are promising at first, there's no assurance that the USFL will have staying power. As the NHL and the NASL both found out when network contracts were canceled because of sagging ratings, TV can show people a game, but it can't make them like it. But this much is sure: The USFL's contract with ABC gives it a foundation to build on that no other aborning professional sports league has ever enjoyed.
SAY, AREN'T YOU BILL WALSH?
Celebrities receive oral greetings, requests for autographs and similar expressions of recognition from strangers all the time. But San Francisco 49er Coach Bill Walsh was treated to something different in the way of public acknowledgment the other day while vacationing in La Jolla, Calif. Walking along a beach, Walsh was recognized by a paunchy, middle-aged man who excitedly began gesturing in the manner of NFL players and field officials. As Walsh watched in bemusement, the fellow called for a fair catch and indicated a time-out and a holding penalty before finally raising his arms to signal a touchdown.
A PACKAGE DEAL YOU CAN'T REFUSE
Like a lot of losing teams, the Utah Jazz has a small but faithful nucleus of season-ticket holders but hasn't had much luck attracting a broader following. Recently the Jazz, which drew an average of just 7,700 fans a game this season and says it needs to raise that to nearly 10,000 to turn a profit, came up with a novel scheme for filling seats. The club has enlisted season ticket-holders to, in effect, sell tickets. The key to the plan is what may or may not be—depending on how one looks at it—a dramatic increase for the 1982-83 season in the price of the best seats. These tickets sold for $10 and $12 in 1981-82, and they will now cost $20 and $30, respectively. However, customers actually are being offered a package deal because they will be given a "bonus" of two lower-priced season tickets for each higher-priced one purchased. For example, the buyer of a $20 ticket will get two tickets that sold this season for $5 or $7.50 each. A purchaser of a $30 ticket will receive two additional tickets that sold for $10 or $12. Buyers can either sell the bonus tickets or give them away; in the case of corporations, which have made up a good share of the Jazz's season ticket-holders in past years, the tickets presumably would be distributed among employees. The club apparently assumed that ardent Jazz fans would be willing to swallow hard and pay the higher prices rather than be left out in the cold.
After the plan was announced, some season ticket-holders complained that the Jazz was taking advantage of people who supported the team and had priced tickets out of the reach of all but the wealthiest purchasers. One holder of season tickets grumbled, "You're asking us to pay $30 a seat and then become a salesman for you." Undeterred by such criticism, the club gave its 2,800 1981-82 season ticket-holders until May 1 to commit themselves to renew their seats for next season. Roughly 1,600 of them did so, the automatic result being that the Jazz had sold—unloaded might be the better word—4,800 season tickets for 1982-83. With the sale of season tickets now open to the public at large, a Jazz spokeswoman says that team officials are "all smiles" over how well the unique arrangement appears to be working. She also says that three other NBA teams have approached the Jazz for information about the scheme.
ON VACATION, AS ALWAYS
During a 13-year major league career that may now be over, Bill Lee established himself as a worthy successor to such madcap lefthanded pitchers as Rube Waddell and Lefty Gomez. A star of mound (his big league record is 119-90), screen (he was the subject of a feature-length documentary, Bill Lee: A Profile of a Pitcher, that had a run last year in a Montreal theater) and innumerable They Said Its in this magazine (Lee, on visiting China: "Now I'll get to see the real Big Red Machine"), Lee, a/k/a Spaceman, had a knack for infuriating his superiors. Example: He once was fined by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for telling reporters that he'd sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes. Another example: Two years ago, following a pep talk delivered to the Expo players by club President John McHale, Lee deadpanned, "He said we'd come a long way. We'd only come from St. Louis." That last bon mot prompted Dick Williams, then the Montreal manager, to observe that Lee, who at the time had a 3-6 record, "sounds a lot funnier when he's winning."
Lee also failed to amuse Expo management when he stormed out of the clubhouse just before a game against the Dodgers last month to protest the team's release of Second Baseman Rodney Scott. Lee went to a bar, where he shot pool and had a couple of beers before returning to Olympic Stadium, by which time the Expos were in the seventh inning of a 10-8 loss. The next morning Lee faced the music. When McHale arrived at his office, he turned on the lights and found the pitcher sitting cross-legged on the floor, working on a peanut-butter sandwich and a quart of milk. Lee was fined $5,000 and released. Since then, no other club has shown an interest in picking up the 35-year-old Lee and his $300,000 salary, and Lee has kept busy as a lefthanded second baseman on a soft-ball team representing a Montreal bar called the Longest Yard. During one recent game he went 5 for 6, with three home runs, fielded flawlessly and bantered with teammates and spectators, one of whom asked him, "Hey, where you going to work this year, Bill?" Spaceman's reply, as reported by the Montreal Gazette's Michael Farber, succinctly summed up his attitude toward his life as a major league baseball player: "I haven't worked since I was eight."
AN OPPORTUNITY IN PRO SPORTS
In a recent flyer announcing a job opening for an assistant director of sports information, Stanford's athletic department noted that applicants should have, among other qualifications, an "ability to work with a wide variety of professionals—sportswriters, newscasters, coaches, administrators, athletes, etc., in a sensitive environment characterized by divergent interests and heavy pressures." One peruser of that job description suggests that if the NCAA decides to try to find out more about the "professional" athletes referred to in the flyer, those toiling in the sensitive environment of Stanford's athletic department could be subjected to heavier pressures still.
"HEALTH AND HONOR"
Sugar Ray Leonard held a press conference last week in the ballroom of a Washington, D.C. hotel; it was his first public appearance since undergoing surgery on May 9 to repair the partially detached retina of his left eye. To protect the eye, Leonard wore non-prescription glasses that, he said, "look better than a patch." After the press conference, the welterweight champion retired to a room in the hotel with several writers, including SI's Pat Putnam, and removed the glasses. The eye was bloodshot, giving him the appearance, Putnam says, of "half a boxing writer."
During both the press conference and the smaller gathering afterward, Leonard discussed his eye injury and its likely effect on his career. He had first experienced vision difficulties in his left eye while training for a title fight against Roger Stafford, scheduled for May 14, and "would grab or move away while sparring, things I normally wouldn't do. One day I got hit with a right alongside the head and a glob of Albolene [a cream used to help prevent cuts] got in my right eye. I thought, 'God, not my right eye, too.' I thought my right eye had fallen out. I went to my corner and said, 'I'm cut.' They told me it was just Albolene. But I couldn't go back to boxing that day. No way. I stayed the rest of the day in my room."
When the decision was made to operate on his retina, Leonard said he experienced "more butterflies than before a fight." He said the worst part of the ordeal was "when the nurse came in and gave me the shots. Her hands were cold and the shots stung." After the operation, he continued, "I forced open my left eye, and up until now I've been afraid to tell anybody what I saw because I was afraid they would lock me up. It was like a split screen. Through the bottom half I saw the people who were with me in the room. Through the top half I saw paradise—little birds chirping, little animals and everything a beautiful green. And I wasn't afraid."
Although he said he hadn't given much thought to returning to the ring, he allowed at another point, "I've been thinking of Marvin Hagler and that another title would look good on my resume." He characterized Hagler, the middleweight champ, as "kind of like a skyscraper. I think to beat him would be kind of neat." But Leonard also said, "Leaving the ring with all my health and with honor is a major factor. I worked too hard for what I have accomplished to go into the ring now and not be among the best. I can't go in and think, 'Hey, my eye, don't hit it.' " Leonard emphasized that the final decision about whether to resume fighting will be his alone. If he retires, he said, he would miss the "challenge" but not the adulation. "I can handle that. I've got nothing to prove. I've destroyed the animals and the monsters."
In marked contrast with the many pro athletes who have conspicuously inflated opinions of themselves, Oakland A's reserve Outfielder Rick Bosetti has asked for his outright release at the end of this season, explaining, "I'm realistic enough to know I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career." That refreshingly candid statement by the 28-year-old Bosetti, a six-year major league veteran, obviously struck a responsive chord among Oakland fans. A Rick Bosetti Fan Club was immediately formed, and its officers have now begun making plans to stage a Rick Bosetti Night. They expect to hold the event at twilight.
THEY SAID IT
•John Lowenstein, Baltimore Oriole outfielder: "The secret to keeping winning streaks going is to maximize the victories while at the same time minimizing the defeats."
•Ralph Houk, Red Sox manager and former Yankee reserve catcher, on Boston's seldom-used catcher, Roser La Francois: "He's my Ralph Houk."
•Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steeler president, after his club cut ticket prices from $13.25 to $13 because of the expiration of a 25¢ surcharge that had been levied since 1970 to defray the cost of stadium construction bonds, modestly suggesting that such a price reduction might be something of a novelty: "This isn't only a first for the Steelers but a first in the history of the world."