SI Vault
William Taaffe
February 11, 1985
It was a spectacular early morning in the desert when CBS executive Neal Pilson first expounded the Gospel According To Pilson. He spoke at a press conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Across from him was a wall of windows that looked out onto sun-dappled lawns. But his speech that morning, June 8, 1984, was anything but serene. What he told the assembled group of TV journalists was that the industry is in some difficulty and that he was about to propose a brave—and seemingly gloomy—new world.
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February 11, 1985

A Decline In Tv Ratings Has Major Implications For The Sports World

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Contract squabbles, player strikes, franchise moves in the dark of the night, booze, boycotts, marijuana, selfishness, cocaine, courtrooms. As Cosell said, they're all negatives, chipping away until the casual fan, at least, decides he has better things to do than watch games. Cowboy president and general manager Tex Schramm puts it this way: "It's almost a fact now that excellence is judged more by the size of a contract than by performance. That takes some of the glamour and mystique out."

Don Ohlmeyer, formerly executive producer of NBC Sports and now the head of his own production company, says the ratings are down because the fans are also down. "The players don't give the fans any reason to root for them anymore," he says. "It used to be that if the team won, terrific. In baseball now it's, 'If they don't pay me enough money, I'm leaving. I have no loyalty to you, little kid, even though it's you who comes and pays the three bucks that allows the club to pay my salary.' I think the fans are asking themselves, 'If they don't care about me, why should I care about them?' "

Mystique is my pet theory. I think expansion and what I call "quality inflation" also have turned viewers off. There are too many leagues, too many teams, too many players. How can you possibly remember it all. The record book has been watered down by longer seasons. Boxing has become a farce with "junior" this, "super" that and three "crowns" per weight level. Everything seems prepackaged nowadays, like mustard in little plastic pouches. Sure, glut and viewing alternatives hurt. But expansion and quality inflation and all the other bad vibes have affected my interest more.

Now mix in the drug headlines. "If I were Rozelle," says Leff, who places spots for one of the NFL's major advertisers, "I'd make every player in the league take a saliva test every hour of the day until I cleaned the drugs out of there." Says Rozelle, referring to drugs and all the other negatives: "People are used to reading this kind of bad news in other sections of the newspaper. When you see the same thing attributed to your favorite diversion, it's a turnoff."

There are still other theories for the downtrend. Kids watching MTV. Networks counter-programming big games with the likes of I Was a Teenage Werewolf Before I Left My Burning Bed And Found God. And not least, the fitness boom. "Heck, when I was a kid," John Madden told S.I.'s Lisa Twyman, "there were jocks, but there were also people interested in music, books and art—intellectuals, sophisticates. Some of them never worked up a sweat in their lives. Now everyone's active. People do more things. The alternatives are to watch a game, go play a game or just go outside. Watching is not in first place anymore. There are other things to do. There are these Jane Fonda exercise books and videos, people who eat quiche and sushi. We're losing out to that."

Boxing promoter Bob Arum has his own explanation: Network execs can't see beyond the Hudson River. "You can't have people who only read The New York Times or the Daily News program for an entire nation," he says. "I would venture to say that if one of the three networks moved its sports division to Dallas or St. Louis, the network ratings would go up because then they would have their finger on the pulse of the nation."

The next negotiation is going to be murder. For the first time I can remember the NFL is not going to be able to dictate terms.

I'm not convinced that everything is black and getting blacker. It's been my experience that few things happen to the extent that most people believe and fear.
advertiser, New York City

Let's dream for a moment. Say it's the year 2000. What will we see? A saner world, I think. We'll see enormous, thin, high-resolution TV screens. We'll see viewers sitting before computers or coding boxes, ordering up the particular games they want to watch. There will be a profusion of sporting events still flickering across the screen. But a degree of sanity will have been restored. The networks, which because of their reach will still carry the prestige events, will not be quite as powerful. The players will have adjusted. We will see neither rainbow nor pot o' gold, but pay-TV providing a steady income. The question, of course, is how to get to the year 2000 from 1985. That's where the sky gets gloomy. If Pilson and his network counterparts do start paying less, a lean period that could last a decade or more will be in the offing for leagues, conferences and players alike.

Upshaw says that if the networks ever started offering less, the players would "have to look to expand it. We'll go to pay-per-view and cable." But that view is woefully misinformed. The technology isn't here for pay-TV to come to the rescue. Pay-TV needs millions of complicated gadgets that will let viewers receive individual games for a price, but the electronics will take years to perfect. Sure, the NFL may dabble with basic cable networks, such as ESPN. But it won't find much money there.

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