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Sports, TV & Money: An Explosion Without End : After 50 Years, Fees Still Soaring

June 25, 1989|LARRY STEWART

NEW YORK — On May 17, 1939, Columbia played host to Princeton in a baseball double-header at Baker Field in Manhattan. Princeton won both games, knocking Columbia out of contention for the Eastern baseball title.

Although not much was made of it at the time, the second game was significant for another reason: It was the first sporting event ever televised in the United States.

NBC had a single camera perched on a 12-foot-high wooden stand on the third-base side of the diamond. It transmitted picture impulses of the game through a cable to a truck and from there to the 85th floor of the Empire State Building.

From there, the impulses were transmitted by NBC's experimental station, W2XBS, to viewers at Radio City, Madison Square Garden, a few advertising agencies and the homes of pioneer set owners. At the time, fewer than 400 sets, all of them experimental, existed in the world.

The experiment, which involved a crew of 16, cost NBC $3,000, a good sum in those days.

Bill Stern, the famous radio sportscaster, was the lone announcer. He opened by saying: "I'm not sure what it is we're doing here, but I certainly hope it turns out well for you people who are watching."

Stern, without benefit of a monitor, had no idea what was being seen. Actually, strikeouts were about all that the viewers could follow. The players looked like flies, except the outfielders, who couldn't be seen at all.

Orrin E. Dunlop of the New York Times wrote: "It is difficult to see how this sort of thing can catch the public fancy."

But three months later, on Aug. 26, 1939, NBC again televised a sporting event, this time a major league game between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field, with Red Barber announcing. Dunlop was more impressed.

"Now the ball can be seen; the players are no longer white dots on the screen," he wrote.

And the sports television industry was on its way, growing into what it is today.

How much has it grown? Consider this:

In 1960, CBS, NBC and ABC combined televised 540 hours of sports programming, which was only 5% of all programming.

In 1988, an Olympic year, there were a record 1,848 hours of sports on the networks, nearly 20% of all network programming, plus, in any given market, at least 10,000 more hours on cable and local TV.

ESPN alone devotes 4,500 hours a year to sports events.

Not only are there sports on the national cable networks such as ESPN, TBS and USA, but also on newer regional cable sports networks such as Z Channel (soon to become SportsChannel) and Prime Ticket in Los Angeles, Madison Square Garden Network in New York, and at least half a dozen others.

Meanwhile, rights fees, in most cases, are escalating at an incredible pace as advertisers pour more and more money into sports programming.

General Motors spent $212 million on TV sports advertising in 1988, Anheuser-Busch $145 million.

And everyone seems to be getting a piece of the pie, even high schools.

Although high school sports have appeared on television for years, most recently in Southern California on Prime Ticket, in March came the first national TV contract for high schools.

SportsChannel America, which has purchased Z Channel and will convert it to an all-sports format next Friday, made a five-year deal with the National Federation of State High School Assns. to televise 25 events per year, mostly football and basketball games.

SportsChannel reportedly will pay about $1,000 to $3,000 per telecast, or about $50,000 per year. Although most of the money will go to high school associations and not directly to the schools, some high school coaches and officials perceive this as a step toward the kind of corruption that TV money has helped foster in college athletics.

There's tremendous pressure on college coaches to recruit top athletes because the winning teams get the most money. A college team that goes to basketball's Final Four gets $1 million.

Many would bend a rule or two for that kind of money. But it pales in comparison to the money professional teams make off television.

The 28 National Football League teams this season will each get more than $17 million from television.

The 26 major league baseball teams this season will each make $9.9 million off national contracts with NBC and ABC. Beginning in 1990, they'll each make $16.2 million per season off new contracts with CBS and ESPN, plus millions more off local packages. The New York Yankees, besides getting their share from the national packages, get a whopping $42 million per season from a new 12-year, $500-million deal with the Madison Square Garden network.

At those prices, some people have wondered why MSG didn't just buy the team.

This season, the first of the new deal, MSG is televising 75 games while farming out 75 more to flagship station WPIX. Eventually, MSG may have all Yankee telecasts exclusively.

The Dodgers, it's estimated, make an additional $18 million to $20 million per season off telecasts on KTTV (50 telecasts) and Z Channel/SportsChannel (35).

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