It sells beer, cars and shaving gear. It also sells itself--to the highest bidder.
And the highest bidder, television, calls the plays.
Although network executives don't like to admit it, the promise of TV dollars often dictates when and where games are played and even how many of them there will be.
Pro football used to be a Sunday afternoon diversion. Now, the National Football League schedules games every night of the week except Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
The NFL's playoff season, once a single game for the championship played in mid-December, now goes on for more than a month, ending in late January with the Super Bowl and its million-dollar-a-minute price tag for commercials.
The game of the week in college football used to mean one national game or a few regional games shown by one network. Now it means dozens of games on dozens of channels.
Major league baseball, eyeing additional TV money, is expanding its league championship series from best-of-five to best-of-seven, and will play all seven World Series games at night this year.
Television's billion-dollar contracts even enter into negotiations between players and owners. They were major factors in pro football's 1982 strike and baseball's strike this summer.
Boxing, repeatedly buried and resurrected, is all over TV, with multiple organizations and a profusion of weight classes taking their cut. And TV has become promoter and matchmaker, offering Olympians six-figure checks for six-round bouts which, minus the gold medals, might be worth only a few hundred dollars.
Local stations with home-team coverage and the networks have been joined by syndicated sports programming and cable networks, fragmenting the market.
"Eighty-three percent of the homes with televisions have more than nine channels," said Bob Igiel, senior vice president and director of programming for N.W. Ayer, an advertising agency with major clients as sponsors of sports programming. "More than 50% of the homes are cabled. Except for a few events such as Monday night football, there's no such thing as a game of the week anymore. Just about any night or weekend, there's a game going on on some channel, and usually more than one--a lot more."
Ratings, which routinely rose each year, have leveled off or receded, with fans still watching but divided among so many channels.
Occasionally, TV fails to pump up interest in a sport. America got a look at the North American Soccer League in the '70s, yawned and turned elsewhere. Now the NASL is gone. The National Hockey League also failed to gain a national audience in the '70s and remains a local and cable TV sport anchored in Canada and the northeastern United States.
But for the most part, if television smiles: Success.
The United States Football League wouldn't have been born had ABC not bankrolled it, just as the American Football League would not have survived in the 1960s without NBC's checks.
Conversely, if television frowns: Failure.
The USFL now is without a major network contract and its future is uncertain. The World Football League, without a major network contract, collapsed in the 1970s. The American Basketball Assn. struggled along for a decade and the World Hockey Assn. less than that, minus network contracts, before being merged into older, more stable leagues.
Neal Pilson, executive vice president of CBS sports, said it would be naive to say that television doesn't have an impact on any sport it covers. "It has both a positive and a negative impact," he said. "For every sport that might owe its success to television, I could probably point to one that has either failed or been damaged by television exposure."
And he insisted that television is not forcing sport to do anything.
"It almost invariably has the final control on scheduling, start times, how many games constitute a playoff, on whether a game is going to be in prime time," Pilson said.
"What television does is tell a league or a team, 'If you play at 4 o'clock, we will be able to pay you X. If you play at 8 o'clock, we will be able to pay you X plus Y.' . . . It's not a coercive situation. It's a market-place decision of the sports themselves on how they want to utilize television. You can't place a moral judgment on a business decision," Pilson said.
Jim Spence, the senior vice president of ABC sports, which shares baseball's six-year contract with NBC, said his network "didn't go in and demand World Series games at night. It was baseball which said, 'Whatever you want, you can have.' "
TV DOLLARS UP -- RATINGS DOWN
Pro sports have gotten dramatic increases in the value of their television contracts. However, ratings for key events in each of the sports have declined over the past decade.
TV Contracts: FOOTBALL BASEBALL BASKETBALL (Up) 163% (Up) 267% (Up) 63.5% To $2.1 billion To $1.1 billion To $121 million
TV Ratings: Comparison of peak ratings to the latest ratings FOOTBALL BASEBALL BASKETBALL Super Bowl World Series NBA Playoffs (Down) 5.4% (Down) 31% (Down) 26.8%
Associated Press graphic