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COMMENTARY : Despite Advances in TV, Sports Going Down Tubes Fast

October 03, 1994|MICHAEL WILBON | THE WASHINGTON POST

This was to be one of the more memorable weeks in the history of sports and TV. A new satellite dish -- which could break up more relationships, cause more insomnia, and be responsible for more undone homework than ESPN ever dreamed -- is coming on the market.

For less than $1,000, we're going to be able to buy a digital satellite system, a dish only 18 inches in diameter that's small enough to sit on a windowsill. It's being referred to as DirecTV.

With a clear path to the southern sky, we're promised 150 channels with something close to a laser-disc-quality picture. Oh sure, people can pull down movies and specials and educational shows. But DSS means one thing to the sports fan:

Games.

And more games. Games 'round the clock. Games from the West Coast, games till you drop, games till your spouse walks. So what, you'd apparently have to pay a couple hundred bucks for available NFL games. You'd never need a local TV guide. What can we watch? Whatever I want to watch!!!!

Don't want to see what they've got on TNT? Wait for the Warriors vs. the Suns at 11:30 Eastern. Don't want to see what the NBC and Fox affiliates are deciding you should watch, with all those network restrictions? Let's go to the Niners at the Chiefs. Imagine the possibilities: the Ducks vs. the Flames, Sonics vs. Rockets, Kings at Canucks, Nuggets at Jazz.

One problem.

There are no games.

Can't see what TV can't show.

No baseball, no hockey, maybe no pro basketball. At the moment, we're all weekend warriors, because there are no sports on TV from Tuesday through Friday nights. You know what they showed on ESPN the other night? Chain-saw assembly. Seriously. ESPN cut away from Gary Bettman's news conference Friday to return to ... "Racehorse Digest." Talk about lean.

These days, we don't even need cable, much less a dish, even one the size of a small birdbath. If somebody doesn't settle a strike soon I'll have watched every episode of "Saved By The Bell" twice by the end of October. The other night I switched over to HTS out of habit and, lo and behold, they were showing Knicks vs. Bulls, Game 3 of the 1994 NBA playoffs, better known as the Scottie Pippen "If-I-can't-be-the-hero-I'll-take-a-seat-with-1.8 seconds-left" game. Just what we needed to see: another work stoppage.

If you're a true team sports fan, this is traditionally one of the best times of the year. They're usually playing everything. And anything not being played is about to be played. By the time baseball was scheduled to end, the NBA was scheduled to tip off. Instead, it's become the most disappointing time in a long time. Whatever happened to the late box score?

The villains in all this, the people who have me watching reruns of "Bewitched" on Nick at Nite, are getting easier to identify:

Anybody associated with Major League Baseball.

Gary Bettman.

Anybody in NBA management who wants to close up the "loopholes" in the salary cap.

Let's start with the NHL, which was supposed to begin its 78th season last night. It's obvious you can't blame all of baseball's problems on the absence of a commissioner because the NHL has one, and he might just manage to alienate all the players and half the fans, many of them new ones still growing comfortable with Canada's game.

This is what hockey's lockout boils down to, plain and simple: The union was willing to negotiate in good faith, having promised not to strike at any time this season, and start the season on time. Bettman was not. This rivals the highest level of baseball's arrogance.

If the players have promised not to strike-and there's absolutely no reason to think they're packing a sucker punch-what's the point of a lockout?

Bettman's taking a big gamble. If they get this thing settled and open the season within two weeks, he will have rolled a seven. If he's blown his sport's only chance to monopolize the airwaves and cable through the month of October, he's just Bud Selig Jr.

Bettman says the league has "profound economic problems." It'll have even more when there's a smaller pie to slice up after all the lost gate receipts. By announcing the players would not strike at any point of the season if the doors opened on time Saturday, union chief Bob Goodenow took the high road, which also puts pressure on Bettman. A long strike hurts baseball; it could kill the NHL. At least in the United States.

The NBA, which was perceptive enough to realize its game might not survive a work stoppage more than 10 years ago, is now looking at its own lockout. Players are asking to do away with the salary cap while owners want most of the "exceptions" abolished. Trust me, the players are a lot less adamant about having no cap than the owners are about trying to almost redo much of the original cap agreement that the players simply used to their advantage.

Far more than the proliferation of all-sports radio stations and Joe Fan's wanting more and more games, these mega-labor disputes show how much is at stake and how ridiculously important the sports industry has become to the culture of the late 20th century. And until all these groups of haves figure out how to divvy up their pies, we poor slobs who are willing to pay to literally pull images of these games out of the sky are going to have to settle for learning how to assemble a chain saw.

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