CHICAGO — Major league baseball thought it solved its problem with superstations two years ago when such stations were ordered to pay for the opportunity to beam games of their local teams across the nation by satellite.
However, the effects of those telecasts remain a sticky question for both club owners and the station operators.
Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, in one of his first actions, ordered the superstations carrying games to pay what amounted to a supplemental "rights" fee to major league baseball. Ueberroth was reacting to criticism of the alleged powerful effect teams with superstations have on other franchises.
Turner Broadcasting, which owns the Atlanta Braves and cablecasts games over WTBS; WOR-TV, which telecasts the New York Mets, and WGN, the supplier of Chicago Cubs' games, eventually paid in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $400,000, published reports indicate.
That allowed the three major superstations plus KTVT in Dallas and WPIX in New York, which televise the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees to much smaller audiences, to continue to beam games to all cable operators who take the stations.
When the American League met last year to consider the sale of the Rangers to Gaylord Broadcasting--owner of KTVT--the team owners rejected the request. It was as if the owners were saying that sales to companies that own superstations will no longer be considered, said John Madigan, vice president of the Chicago Tribune Co., owners of WGN and the Chicago Cubs.
"Unfortunately, there are those who want to blame financial problems they have on superstations like WGN. We don't think that's correct," Madigan said. "Typically, they are the ones who haven't performed well on the field and want to blame us for lack of attendance and broadcast revenues. That's not truthful."
The Mets won the pennant and the World Series last year. WOR reported its highest ratings ever for Mets' contests during the summer.
"I can tell you this for sure," says Mets' announcer Tim McCarver. "We get fan mail from all over the country--and criticism, too. It's unbelievable the range of the telecasts. We're not just talking New York, we're talking all over. It has been quite an impact."
But the Braves and Cubs had off years on the field in 1986 and Madigan questions how critics can suggest winners can automatically be made of teams with superstations.
"The Mets won last year and they are on WOR. But being on a superstation has nothing to do with it. Money can't buy a pennant, that's been proven. George Steinbrenner originally did it, but no one has done it lately," Madigan insisted. "That's why you see owners against long-term contracts and trying to cut down on the amount of contracts. All that leads to is a financial problem. Just because we are on a superstation doesn't mean we can finance a winner."
The argument offered by teams not on superstations is that those telecasts cut into attendance of games they are either staging at home or are trying to sell on the road to TV buyers.
Madigan says that is a myth unproven by facts.
"We've found in our studies that the ratings points gained by a game on a superstation in an area that already has major league baseball are very tiny," he says. "The real answer is that if you live in Baltimore you'd rather watch the Orioles play on TV than a game involving the Cubs. Same in other locales. True, we have a great following, but a lot of it comes from areas that have cable and no major league team."
Madigan argues that superstations amount to a constant advertisement for major league baseball. He says statistics show televising all Cubs' home and road games helps attendance.
"It's our philosophy here that having the games on TV helps sell the product. It doesn't hurt attendance. We think superstations have been good for baseball," he said. "Broadcasting 150 games a year has been the reason the Cubs have such a loyal group of fans. It's a program-length commercial for the Cubs, Wrigley Feld and major league baseball."
Eddie Einhorn, the former CBS and TVS executive who now owns part of the Chicago White Sox, maintains the superstation influence isn't as positive as the Cubs would like baseball to believe.
"You can't tell me when a big company like the Tribune Co. decides to buy the team they are doing it just for the good of baseball," Einhorn says. "It's profit. It's dollars and cents. They know that by televising their games, they are making money. It cuts into television revenue local teams can expect and it makes it harder to compete with that kind of money coming in."
Einhorn, who negotiated baseball's billion dollar contract with ABC and NBC for the game of the week, has suggested superstations be put under tighter reins.
"We restricted the networks by giving them an exclusive window for games on Saturday and Monday nights," Einhorn says. "The superstations can't televise then, but they can every other day and come head to head with a home game in that area or with a televised road game."