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Hitting the Fan
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue revealed last week that his league plans to introduce pay-per-view telecasts, possibly as early as 1992 and certainly by 1993. One possibility under consideration is a package of four regular-season games. Although Tagliabue maintains that the plan is experimental, TV and sports executives see pay-per-view as the wave of the future. Seth Abraham, president of Time-Warner Sports (a division of SI's parent company), says, "I think you'll see more sporting events on pay-per-view. Why? Two words: Roger Clemens." The recent four-year, $21.5 million contract extension Clemens signed with the Red Sox was, in a sense, underwritten by CBS, which in December 1988 struck a four-year, $1.08 billion deal with major league baseball. But the networks don't think they're getting their money's worth from the huge rights fees they've paid in the last few years, so pro leagues can no longer count on those fees to foot the bill for escalating player salaries. Ticket prices may also have reached their limit. That leaves pay-per-view as the biggest untapped well available to owners.
Still, says Abraham, "pay-per-view is not an automatic pot of gold. The leagues and the rights holders have to strike a comfortable balance between pay-per-view and free TV, which is very much a part of our way of life."
One other consideration is that only a small, affluent part of society will be able to pay $20 or so to watch a game at home. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, says, "We will take a close look at whatever plan the NFL or any of the other major sports puts together. It is important that we maintain a policy that does not create a nation of the information-rich versus the information-poor."
Speaking before Markey's subcommittee last year, Tagliabue promised that the NFL would not put the Super Bowl on pay-per-view at least until the year 2000. But that's only nine years away. The bigger the event, the more attractive it will be to pay-per-view. There may come a time when the World Series, Final Four and Super Bowl can no longer be seen for free.
A Happy Return
Before Feb. 18, the last time the Edmonton Oilers' Grant Fuhr had been in goal for an NHL game was March 30, 1990. In his return last week, he shut out New Jersey 4-0, not only proving that he was back but also belying the difficulty of playing the position.
That the shutout came against the Devils seemed ironic because Fuhr has been through hell the past few years. He missed the Oilers' final 23 games of last season with a shoulder injury and their first 60 of this season because of a suspension for his admitted use of drugs.
But if he was the same old goalie in the nets last week, he was also a different person. In previous years, when he was the premier goalie in the game, Fuhr could not say no to cocaine. He spoke in monosyllables and wore a what-me-worry facade that hid his insecurities. "You could talk to him," says teammate Ken Linseman, "but you couldn't really talk to him."
Fuhr now says, calmly and assuredly, "Facing up to things is part of the process of burying them. I used to run and hide from things. I was killing myself from the inside out." Fuhr says that he scheduled his cocaine binges so that they wouldn't affect his goaltending, but he admits that they did cause the breakup of his marriage.