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Dodgers Cautiously Enter Pay-TV Game--20 Appearances

February 22, 1985|LARRY STEWART

Pay-per-view TV sports are coming to Los Angeles.

The Dodgers plan to televise 20 home games this season on some cable systems, and possibly on ON-TV and SelecTV as well, on a pay-per-view basis, charging $6 a game or $85 up front for the full package.

The Lakers and Kings have a pay-per-view project in the works for next season.

The Angels recently shelved plans to get into the pay-TV business and will instead show about a dozen games on both ON-TV and SelecTV this season at no extra charge. But there has been talk that they eventually will join the Lakers and Kings on their pay channel.

The question is, will viewers pay for something that they are accustomed to getting free?

The Dodgers figure they will, even though pay-per-view, in many cases, has been a flop. The San Diego Padres and Cox Cable had success with a pay-per-view package last season. Padre President Ballard Smith called the response encouraging. Of course, the Padres had a winning season.

Elsewhere, response has been anything but encouraging.

Take what happened in Milwaukee, for example. A pay sports channel there failed miserably.

Jim Fitzgerald, majority owner of the Bucks, was in pay television even before he gained control of the team 10 years ago. His plan was to eventually make a killing in pay TV.

It never quite worked out that way. Fitzgerald and Brewer president Bud Selig started a pay-TV venture, Sportsvue, last April. For $8 a month, subscribers were to get 67 Brewer games, 33 Buck games, University of Wisconsin and Marquette University sports, and other events--in all, about 200 a year.

The Bucks had always been a success at the gate, annually selling more than 90% of the seats in their 11,000-seat home arena for $5.50 to $15.50.

But as a pay-TV attraction, the Bucks, and the Sportsvue venture, drew no more than 18,000 subscribers--about half the amount needed to break even.

They probably would have drawn more viewers, but cable TV is available only in the Milwaukee suburbs, not in the city itself, where cable TV has long been a political football.

In any event, the 10-month Sportsvue venture lost about $3.7 million. It ceased operation Feb. 2, and last week, Fitzgerald, who now lives in Palm Springs, put the Bucks up for sale.

Other sports organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlantic Coast Conference in college basketball, have experienced a similar fate.

Why?

"The key element here is the existence of superstations," Fitzgerald said. "They offer too many live quality events. People are unwilling to pay for sporting events when they can get them free elsewhere.

"We cut back on the number of Brewer and Buck games on over-the-air free television, but viewers could still get them on the superstations."

Atlanta superstation WTBS offers Hawks basketball, Braves baseball, college basketball, auto racing and other sports. WGN in Chicago offers Bulls basketball, plus DePaul and other college basketball games. WOR in New York offers Knicks and Nets basketball, Rangers and Islanders hockey and Mets baseball. WPIX in New York, which is not yet carried by many Southern California cable companies, offers Yankees baseball.

All that, besides what commercial and cable networks and independent stations offer, adds up to a lot of sports on TV at no extra cost.

The Dodgers, however, figure that their venture will make it for two reasons:

--Los Angeles has the largest number of addressable cable households of any TV market in the country. Addressable households are ones that are equipped with units that permit pay-per-view TV. Of the 1.1 million cable households in this area, nearly 500,000 are addressable. An additional 240,000 homes with ON-TV and SelecTV are also addressable.

--The Dodgers are taking a conservative dip into the pay-TV business, rather than a plunge. They're not getting involved in a full-time sports channel that needs a lot of costly programming. Their pay-TV games will be shown on existing channels at a minimum of expense.

"Our position, right or wrong, is to offer just a few selected home games," said Merritt Willey, the Dodgers' director of marketing. "The Dodgers are a conservative organization. The theory is we must crawl before we walk or run."

Willey said that since their project was announced about 2 1/2 months ago, the response from both cable operators and viewers has been positive.

But it seems that a pay sports channel would stand a better chance if all of the L.A. teams got together and offered a complete package--Dodgers, Angels, Lakers, Kings, USC and UCLA on one channel. The Dodgers--yes, even the Dodgers--might be in trouble by themselves.

Viewers will still get their usual diet of Dodger road games on Channel 11. Willey said there will be no cutbacks there. And there still are all those games on the superstations and other outlets. So, again, the question arises: Will viewers pay for something that's usually free?

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