Hitting the Fan
The NFL will begin pay-per-view telecasts within the next two years
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue revealed last week that his league plans to introduce pay-per-view telecasts, possibly as early as 1992 and certainly by 1993. One possibility under consideration is a package of four regular-season games. Although Tagliabue maintains that the plan is experimental, TV and sports executives see pay-per-view as the wave of the future. Seth Abraham, president of Time-Warner Sports (a division of SI's parent company), says, "I think you'll see more sporting events on pay-per-view. Why? Two words: Roger Clemens." The recent four-year, $21.5 million contract extension Clemens signed with the Red Sox was, in a sense, underwritten by CBS, which in December 1988 struck a four-year, $1.08 billion deal with major league baseball. But the networks don't think they're getting their money's worth from the huge rights fees they've paid in the last few years, so pro leagues can no longer count on those fees to foot the bill for escalating player salaries. Ticket prices may also have reached their limit. That leaves pay-per-view as the biggest untapped well available to owners.
Still, says Abraham, "pay-per-view is not an automatic pot of gold. The leagues and the rights holders have to strike a comfortable balance between pay-per-view and free TV, which is very much a part of our way of life."
One other consideration is that only a small, affluent part of society will be able to pay $20 or so to watch a game at home. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, says, "We will take a close look at whatever plan the NFL or any of the other major sports puts together. It is important that we maintain a policy that does not create a nation of the information-rich versus the information-poor."
Speaking before Markey's subcommittee last year, Tagliabue promised that the NFL would not put the Super Bowl on pay-per-view at least until the year 2000. But that's only nine years away. The bigger the event, the more attractive it will be to pay-per-view. There may come a time when the World Series, Final Four and Super Bowl can no longer be seen for free.
A Happy Return
Goalie Grant Fuhr picks up where he left off
Before Feb. 18, the last time the Edmonton Oilers' Grant Fuhr had been in goal for an NHL game was March 30, 1990. In his return last week, he shut out New Jersey 4-0, not only proving that he was back but also belying the difficulty of playing the position.
That the shutout came against the Devils seemed ironic because Fuhr has been through hell the past few years. He missed the Oilers' final 23 games of last season with a shoulder injury and their first 60 of this season because of a suspension for his admitted use of drugs.
But if he was the same old goalie in the nets last week, he was also a different person. In previous years, when he was the premier goalie in the game, Fuhr could not say no to cocaine. He spoke in monosyllables and wore a what-me-worry facade that hid his insecurities. "You could talk to him," says teammate Ken Linseman, "but you couldn't really talk to him."
Fuhr now says, calmly and assuredly, "Facing up to things is part of the process of burying them. I used to run and hide from things. I was killing myself from the inside out." Fuhr says that he scheduled his cocaine binges so that they wouldn't affect his goaltending, but he admits that they did cause the breakup of his marriage.
He feels that his suspension was just but unnecessary. In August 1989, a year before he made the public admission of drug use, Fuhr spent two weeks in a drug rehabilitation center in St. Petersburg. "That made me see myself," he says. "It was not a pretty sight."
When NHL president John Ziegler earlier this month reduced what had been a year's suspension to 60 games, Fuhr hurried his NHL return by playing four games in six nights for the Oilers' farm club in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Not only did he sharpen his goaltending skills, but he also thickened his skin. In New Haven, Conn., he was taunted by a fan who held up a white substance in a plastic bag and a sign reading PAY ME LATER.
After Fuhr's shutout, Oiler coach John Muckler said, "You couldn't write a better script." But it will be up to Fuhr to provide the happy ending.
Soviet basketball is no longer as good as gold
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev probably doesn't have hoops on his mind right now, but if he did, he might be even more firm in his opposition to independence in the Baltics. The Soviet national basketball team, the gold medalist in the 1988 Olympics and the runner-up in last summer's world championships, didn't even make the eight-team field for the European championships, which will be held in Rome in June. In recent qualifying games, the Soviets barely defeated the Czechoslovaks at home, then lost to the Israelis in Tel Aviv and the French in Moscow.
There are a number of reasons for the U.S.S.R.'s first failure since 1951 to get out of the qualifying round. One is the decision by the Soviet basketball federation to reward the 1988 Olympians for their victory by granting them permission to sign pro contracts overseas. The best ones did—Arvydas Sabonis with a team in Spain, and Sarunas Marciulionis and Alexander Volkov with the NBA's Warriors and Hawks, respectively.
But the biggest reason for the U.S.S.R.'s sudden futility is that not a single Lithuanian plays for the national team. Lithuania, a sort of Soviet Indiana, produced four of the top players on the '88 champs: Sabonis, Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Khomichus.
Lithuania is the most truculent of the breakaway republics, and it's now politically untenable for a good citizen to play for the U.S.S.R. "One is ashamed to admit it, but we have fallen to the level of Hungary or Bulgaria," says Alexander Boloshev, a member of the U.S.S.R.'s 1972 gold medal team. One Lithuanian has remained: Vladas Garastas, coach of the Soviet national team. But unless he can prevail upon the class of '88 to muster up again, the Seoul Olympics will stand as the U.S.S.R.'s last basketball triumph for a while. In fact, Garastas would be better off with a Lithuanian Olympic team—if there were such a thing.
He Knows the Score
Former All-Pro Mike Reid is on top of the country charts
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in life," says Mike Reid, who is performing in his own second act. Make that second half. Or better yet, second verse.
Reid, a former Outland Trophy winner as a defensive tackle at Penn State and a two-time All-Pro with the Cincinnati Bengals in the early 1970s, is now Nashville's hottest star, as a vocalist and a songwriter. Last month he released his first solo album, Turning for Home, and one of the album's singles, Walk on Faith, is No. 1 on every country chart. Once called "the best defensive lineman in the country" by Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno, Reid now draws praise from Bonnie Raitt, who recorded his composition Too Soon to Tell on her 1990 Grammy-winning album, Nick of Time. "He's got an incredibly soulful voice," says Raitt. "And he writes as well as he sings."
Reid, who played classical piano with several orchestras while he was playing football, retired in 1975 at age 27, saying he was "disenchanted with the system and pro football in general." When Reid hears that quote now, he laughs. "Athletes in their 20's haven't had their Copernican revelation yet," he says. "They still think the world revolves around them."
After Reid gave up his $100,000-a-year job with the Bengals, he decided to hit the country roads, touring small-town clubs and hotel bars. In 1980 he moved to Nashville to take a songwriting job, and in the decade that followed, he wrote 13 No. 1 songs for artists ranging from Alabama to the Judds. Last year Reid decided to do his own album. "There are two kinds of records you make," he says. "The first kind says to the buyer, 'Here's the album, give me your money.' The second says, 'Here's the album, this is what I have to say.' Only recently could I make the second kind."
Reid is planning to tour later this year and is working on a Civil War musical, A House Divided. He has also come to appreciate the game he once shunned. "I loved the theater of it," he says. "There's nothing like a bright Sunday afternoon, the band playing and everyone watching you. Geez, it was fun."
Then, sounding like the country songwriter he is, he says, "My past is what it is, and I have no regrets."
A Real Hoofer
This racer gives new meaning to the term "buffalo wings"
As baseball players headed south for spring training last week, an athlete of another sort was working out in Tucson to shed his winter weight—and coat—before the start of his season in April. His name is Harvey Wallbanger, and he's an 11-year-old, 2,000-pound Bison bison, or buffalo, from Rozet, Wyo. Harvey tours the country humiliating thoroughbreds, standardbreds and quarter horses in his specialty, the 110-yard sprint.
Owned, trained and ridden by T.C. Thorstenson, Harvey can do 110 yards in seven seconds when given a running start, which he gets at harness-racing tracks; out of a thoroughbred gate, he has been clocked in nine seconds. In five years of match racing, Harvey has lost just 13 times in 92 starts, and that's despite the handicap of having the 170-pound Thorstenson aboard.
A former bull rider on the rodeo circuit, Thorstenson has raised Harvey since the buffalo's mother was killed by a poacher when Harvey was only two days old. By the time he was three, Harvey was saddle-broken. One day Thorstenson was telling some rodeo friends that Harvey was "pretty quick." When one of the listeners scoffed at this, Thorstenson proposed a race matching Harvey with some quarterhorses at Energy Downs in Gillette, Wyo.—and Harvey won.
Since that race, Harvey has run all across the country, with as many as 25,000 buffalo gals and guys coming out one night to see him. A few years ago, he and Vanna White costarred in a Beauty and the Beast promotion at a track in Saskatchewan. But Harvey's favorite stop is still Buffalo (N.Y.) Raceway.
[Thumps Up]To 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo for reversing his field on his team's new logo (SCORECARD, Feb. 25) and restoring the traditional SF insignia to 49er helmets.
[Thumps Up]To William & Mary for its decision to continue to compete in wrestling, women's basketball and men's and women's swimming, sports it had considered dropping because of budgetary considerations.
[Thumps Down]To the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League for staging a Garbage Can Toss promotion that made light of coach Doug Soetaert's disgraceful display on Feb. 17, when he threw two trash cans toward a referee.
THEY SAID IT
Bobby Ross, Georgia Tech football coach, on recruiting offensive tackle Yancy Sims of Manchester (Ga.) High: "I like the fact that he's the president of his student body. I also like the fact that he's 6'7", 294 pounds."
Harold Snepsts, Blues defenseman, to the doctor who advised him to wear a helmet to avoid brain damage: "Aw, don't worry about that, Doc. If it happens, I could always come back as a forward."
Better Watch Out
After reading a recent article in the Los Angeles Times detailing alleged cheating on urine tests by USC football players, Penn State coach Joe Paterno went down to his team's weight room and confronted the eight players there. "I said, 'We're going to test right now, and I'm going to watch you pee,' " Paterno revealed last week. "Two of the guys couldn't go—I guess they weren't used to having the coach watch them." Paterno added, "I wanted to make a point: There is a way to stop this cheating."
Making a List
Eddie Futch, 79, will be in heavyweight Riddick Bowe's corner on March 2, when Bowe meets Tyrell Biggs in Atlantic City. Here is Futch's list of the 10 best champs he has handled, along with his comments:
1. Joe Frazier (heavyweight)—The greatest heart of all, he fought from bell to bell. Every trainer should have one Joe Frazier in his life.
2. Michael Spinks (light heavyweight)—Unorthodox, but he could adapt perfectly to any opponent.
3. Mike McCallum (middleweight)—A thinking fighter who tears you up downstairs, then pulls your teeth.
4. Larry Holmes (heavyweight)—He learned from his mistakes, and he was always in great condition.
5. Alexis Arguello (lightweight)—All the tools in the world. You could put him on course, and he stayed on it.
6. Don Jordan (welterweight)—My first champ, in 1958, he was an excellent boxer who never reached his potential.
7. Hedgemon Lewis (welterweight)—A boxing master. When he sparred, other fighters would come to watch.
8. Maurice Blocker (middleweight)—Tall and skinny, he doesn't look the part, but he finds a way.
9. Marlon Starling (welterweight)—He moves so well, and when he's on, he controls everything in the ring.
10. Bob Foster (light heavyweight)—Such range and strength. He could move and box, but, my, what a punch.
Taking a Powder
The Massachusetts high school cross-country ski championships were held on Feb. 13—in Vermont. For the second time in three years the event had to be moved from the Bay State to the Green Mountain State because of a lack of snow.
35 Years Ago in Sports Illustrated
The five Cardinals outfielders taking flight on the cover of the spring training issue in 1956 were (from left) Bill Virdon, Harry Elliott, Rip Repulski, Wally Moon and Stan Musial. One of Musial's few peers as a hitter, Ted Williams, was also in the issue, as the subject of a pictorial feature on his sailfishing contest with Sam Snead, the golfer. Snead won, five fish to three.