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How will the changes affect viewers?
In the short run, before financial problems start killing a team here and a team there, not very much. Say the networks and a few syndicators lop off more hours than expected. Independents, superstations and the cable services will still carry a ton of games.
"The viewer will always have a great variety of programming," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "You've got college football and college basketball and the Major Indoor Soccer League and the NASL and the USFL. The North American Baseball League is expected to get started. There's road racing and Superstars and special events and marathons. All you're gonna have to do is learn how to find out where everything is—how to use your channel guide and addressable box."
How about the networks? How will they fare?
They're not exactly going to roll over and play dead. They are, and apparently always will be, the only TV outlets that reach all of the country. At its best, cable TV will reach 60% of the country's homes by 1991. "If we can manage our business properly, we can survive and be very healthy," Pilson says.
The networks of the future will focus on high-profile games of national interest. There will be a nice, pat division of responsibility, the networks taking the high road, the other TV outlets filling in on a regional basis. Although cable sports services have been chipping away at the networks' ratings of late, the networks don't believe they're working at cross purposes. Otherwise, ABC would not have purchased 80% of ESPN, and CBS would not have bought 50% of Sports Channel, a regional pay-TV outlet in New York and Boston.
One nightmare that won't come true, at least for a number of years, is the Super Bowl and World Series going to pay-TV. To keep promoting themselves among the fans, the NFL and major league baseball still want the masses to see the crown jewels, so they'll stay with the networks.
How will the syndicators and the advertisers adjust? Some syndicators already are sucking air. "I don't think they'll be able to survive," says Katz president Fred Botwinik, adding that his own company will be an exception. "It doesn't make sense for them to be paying the high rights fees and not getting the return." Conferences with huge syndication deals, take note. The ad men? They'll return to the networks like swallows to Capistrano, but only if the price is right. Network sports advertising was a $1.37 billion business in '83, according to CBS. This year, Chevrolet opted out of the Super Bowl rather than pay ABC's ad rate of $525,000 per half-minute. Chevrolet and Anheuser-Busch moved some ads away from the NFL toward prime-time programs such as Hill Street Blues. The networks remain the place where most of the guys who drink beer and drive pickup trucks happen to be. But the ad firm of Needham, Harper & Steers warns, "As male audiences continue to decline, advertisers and their agencies will look harder for alternative media sources."
In '84 an unprecedented number of NFL and major league baseball teams changed hands or were put on the market. Three NFL teams, San Diego, Denver and Dallas, were sold. Another, New Orleans, still has the For Sale sign up. All this in a league in which only one franchise, San Francisco, had been sold in the previous seven years. As for baseball, commissioner Peter Ueberroth says eight of the 26 teams are for sale. Have the owners read Pilson's gospel?
The players may grouse and grumble, but they will have no choice except to live with less. "It's the way the country is headed," Ohlmeyer says. "Chrysler and Ford and most major corporations in America have faced this issue. Sports has always been five or six years behind the country. Race, drugs and the union movement were issues in sports long after they were issues in the country. You'll see, the players will adjust. The only difference is that players are more concerned about the here and now. At Chrysler or Ford, the guy on the production line is planning to be there until he's 65."