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Getting Hooked on Cable Sports : Pay TV Competition Begins to Resemble Playing-Field Rivalry

June 26, 1989|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

Sports? You want sports? Cable's got sports. So many non-stop athletic contests, in fact, that the average fan might just die of exhaustion in front of the TV set.

Sports programming in Southern California has exploded.

Today, thanks to cable, any fan of any sport--from basketball to billiards to baseball--can have a front-row seat in living-room comfort. In addition to the decade-old, all-sports national cable channel, Connecticut-based ESPN, two Los Angeles-based sports channels have popped up on cable during the past four years.

One of them, the Z Channel, is abandoning its current format of movies and sports this week to go all sports. SportsChannel Los Angeles, which debuts Friday, currently has exclusive rights to selected Dodgers, Angels and Clippers games.

Ironically, the other channel, Prime Ticket Network, has cable rights to the Lakers, Kings and the Pac 10, potentially setting up the kind of head-to-head competition for sports viewers' loyalty that usually turns up on the playing field.

How do the executives who run the cable sports business explain the recent upsurge? They claim that cable sports hit the fast track when the middle class got priced off the court and out of the ballpark.

"Even if you wanted to, you can't buy a ticket to go across the street and see a Laker game," said John Severino, president of Prime Ticket, which is headquartered across the street from the Forum in Inglewood.

Nearly every home game of the defending NBA championship team was a sellout this year. All the best seats went to season ticket holders long before the first game was ever played. If tickets could be had at all, they generally went at prices well above the $11.50 face value.

But Prime Ticket televised 31 of the Laker home games this year. For the price of a basic cable hook-up (about $20 a month), 3.5 million subscribers got to see them all, plus a lineup of UCLA and USC football games, professional soccer, tennis tournaments, professional volleyball and ice hockey.

During the past six months, the 4-year-old sports network also televised 27 home and 33 road games of Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team.

"Next year, they'll be just like the Lakers," Severino predicted. "You probably won't be able to buy a ticket to see a Kings game, even if you had the money."

Los Angeles has come late to cable sports.

Touted as the wave of the future, cable began catching on in other metropolitan areas across the United States as early as 20 years ago. But only recently has the Los

Angeles area been wired for cable to any significant degree. There are still patches of mountain and desert that can't get cable, and TV household "cable resistance," as it's known in the television industry, persists in the greater Los Angeles area, where slightly more than half the homes that could subscribe choose not to.

There are several explanations for Los Angeles residents' resistance and the equally slow development of cable sports, beginning with the weather.

"There's 310 days of sunshine a year in Southern California," said Rockey Flintermann, who has been programming director for Santa Monica-based Z Channel and will continue in that position for SportsChannel Los Angeles. "People can watch a football game at 10 a.m. (on one of the broadcast networks) and play touch football themselves by 1:30 p.m."

"Or watch two games and play football at 4 p.m.," said Z Channel president Joseph Cohen.

Another reason Los Angeles has come late to cable sports, according to Cohen, is the panoply of over-the-air broadcast offerings. There are seven VHF stations and another 11 UHF stations serving Los Angeles, most of which offer some sports from time to time.

"You also have to remember that ON-TV was a very successful over-the-air pay-TV service that went on the air in April, 1977," said Flintermann. "They had the Lakers, Dodgers, Angels and the Kings. ON-TV probably postponed the wiring of Los Angeles by 10 years."

At its peak in 1981, ON-TV had 380,000 subscribers who paid $39.95 for installation and $18.95 a month. For the next two years, ON-TV dominated the local pay-TV market. (By the time the combination movie and sports pay-TV service sold out to rival SelecTV in 1985 for a reported $18 million, however, cable and the growing popularity of videocassettes had cut its subscription base to 156,000.)

To pick up where ON-TV left off, Lakers owner Jerry Buss formed a partnership with Denver businessman Bill Daniels and created the Prime Ticket Network in 1985. With Buss' teams as its mainstay, Prime Ticket began selling its evening-only telecasts of basketball and hockey to dozens of local cable TV services throughout Southern California and, eventually, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.

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