With a clang of cymbals, a clatter of commercials and bidding that sounds like proposals for the national defense budget, the three major television networks have for some time now been working themselves into a Gillette Foamy lather over sports. This year, from surfboarding to the World Series, live and in color, by tape and by satellite, the Big Three of TV have brought more athletic entertainment into living rooms than ever before. So it is all the more remarkable that on a total-hour basis the efforts of ABC, CBS and NBC combined will be outstripped by a little-known—and aptly named—competitor, Sports Network Incorporated.
SNI not only specializes in televising athletic events, it finds a way to assemble a new network for every sport it puts on the air. Sports Network has been described by one industry executive as "almost an illusion, nothing more than a man on a telephone." Yet in 1965 the company was one of American Telephone and Telegraph's largest customers, running up a $7 million bill that did not come from that "one man" making a lot of long-distance calls to Tahiti. Less than 10 years ago Sports Network was two people working in a borrowed room. Today it employs 100 full-time staffers and 150 free-lancers; it occupies 4,600 square feet of offices overlooking New York's Fifth Avenue, and 21,000 square feet more on 46th Street, in Rutherford and East Rutherford, N.J., St. Louis and Los Angeles; it owns $4 million worth of the latest taping and mobile equipment, including two new color units that the major networks have been known to covet, and it focuses its extensive facilities on 1,000 events a year.
Sports Network's most important asset, however, is still that man on the telephone, 55-year-old Richard Eugene Bailey, who founded SNI in late 1955 and who owns 98% of the stock. In the world of television he is considered somewhat of a misfit, partly because he is so completely his own boss—which means, in turn, that he is in a position to be as good as his word.
"Dick's a breath of fresh air in what can be a pretty vicious business," says the programming director of a major advertising agency. "I'd never go on the air with a network show unless I had everything I needed from the network in writing. I don't need that from Dick. His word and handshake are enough."
With his word and his handshake Dick Bailey can now put a national network together in almost as little time as it takes a viewer to open a beer. In his 10 years he has televised, mostly on a network basis, auto racing, baseball, basketball (pro and college), bowling, boxing, dog shows, football (pro and college), frostbite sailing, golf, gymnastics, horse racing, iceboating, ice hockey, jai alai, lacrosse, polo, skiing, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and wrestling. This year SNI's live sports coverage will run to more than 2,500 hours.
A typical example of the role SNI plays in sportscasting can be seen in its handling of the 1963 Bing Crosby pro-amateur golf tournament. On January 2, 15 days before the tournament was to start, Bob Breckner, then president of KTTV in Los Angeles, called Bailey in New York to advise him that ABC was not picking up its option to televise the Crosby. Tournament officials were willing to sell the TV rights for the low price of $20,000 to anyone who could guarantee some sort of national hookup, The offer sounded good to Bailey, who was ready to say yes, but there were some immediate problems. Breckner had already checked with a sponsor and been told that it would be impossible to round up a network in such a short time. The sponsor had indicated two key stations, one in Nashville and one in New Orleans, that reportedly would never join. Bailey reacted instinctively to the challenge. He reached for the telephone and within an hour had commitments from WSM in Nashville and WDSU in New Orleans, the stations in question. Thus encouraged, he stayed at the telephone and kept right on calling.
"The whole staff worked long into the night for those two weeks," says Bailey, relishing the recollection. "To take advantage of the time-zone changes we would start calling the eastern stations first and then work west with the sun. At 8:30 each night, when the West Coast offices were closing down, we'd stop calling and start sending out the wires of confirmation and wrapping up the paper work."
When the tournament finally reached the home screens the show had five sponsors and was picked up by a network of 121 stations that covered 86% of the U.S. It also got a higher Nielsen rating than any golf tournament televised that year: an 11.0, compared to 10.4 for the Masters, 7.0 for the U.S. Open and 7.2 for the PGA. All of which gave Jack Nicklaus some pain in his self-esteem, for it meant there were 22 million people watching when he three-putted the last green to lose, and gave ABC some pain in the same place for having dropped the Crosby.
The sports spectaculars, such as the World Series, the college bowl games, the pro football playoffs, the major golf tournaments and the Kentucky Derby, have become pretty much the exclusive preserve of the big networks because ABC, CBS and NBC can usually risk more on a high bid for TV rights. It is Bailey, however, who provides the viewing public with week-to-week, meat-and-potatoes nourishment. This year SNI has handled, for example, the NCAA basketball championship, the collegiate indoor track, swimming and diving, and ski championships, the national indoor tennis championship, pro basketball games and 90% of the major horse races run on the East Coast. It also scheduled 13 live telecasts of PGA golf tournaments and did all of the road games televised back home by the 20 major league baseball clubs.
The baseball contract was what led to the founding of SNI. In 1954, when he was working for ABC as the company's chief network coordinator, Dick Bailey was called in by the BBDO advertising agency on behalf of two clients, Schaefer beer and Lucky Strike, who wanted better cost efficiency for their broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodger baseball games. Bailey investigated, and by streamlining transmission operations he was able to save the two sponsors a quick $45,000. This made him suspect that he might be able to save similar amounts all around the league. In those days most of the 16 major league clubs televised home games as a matter of course, but beaming a road game back to the TV sets at home was a rare thing. The chief obstacles were the ones usually associated with a disorganized, every-man-for-himself enterprise. Cost—about $4,000 per game, depending on the distance from home—was only one. The others were the difficulties inherent in setting up each telecast on a one-shot basis: installing new telephones in the broadcasting booth each time, installing new transmission facilities, lining up stations to carry the game, etc.