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The ultimate sports spectator, or junkie, vintage 1981, is a very tall (6'7") pharmacist, age 30. His name is David Squires, and he spectates before a 19-inch Panasonic Quintrix II television set in the front room of his brown bungalow at 229 Glacier Drive, Lolo, Mont. Lolo? Yes, Lolo (pop. 4,000), a drab hamlet 10 miles outside Missoula in the farthest western reaches of the state. Here the land is raw and beautiful, most of it nearly as virginal today as it was 176 years ago when Lewis and Clark trekked through. Lolo is not virginal, however.
It's full of small tract houses and trailer parks. Lolo's biggest business is Don Tripp's Truck Stop. This section of Montana is sparsely settled for miles in all directions beyond the Missoula-Lolo population knot, and there is heavy truck traffic east-west on Interstate 90 and north-south on 93. "Truck stops are a very important part of the local economy," says Squires. "That and timber. But the timber business has gone to hell."
On a brief tour of Lolo (there is no other kind) Squires points out the sights: the truck stop, the barbershop, the dry cleaners, the bingo parlor and Hardware Hank's. He gestures toward a couple of taverns and says, "Montana has about the highest alcoholism rate in the country. Even when the economy is in good shape, there's nothing much to do in winter except drink. Or watch TV."
Squires does a little of one and a lot of the other. He insists he isn't addicted to television any more than he is to alcohol, which is not at all. He says, "If there's a choice of going fishing or watching TV, I'll fish." Then he adds with a wry shrug, "Of course, I'll always do a quick channel check to see what's on so I don't miss something big."
Something big? In Lolo? You bet. Obviously, 229 Glacier Drive is situated in a section of the U.S. that is about as far off, barefoot and bush league as one can imagine. The nearest city with any kind of a big league look to it is Seattle, and it's 400 miles away. But that doesn't matter, for every day—no, every hour—Squires is served a veritable glutton's feast of major league sports. Thanks to the cable connection for which he pays M&M Cable Co. of Lolo $11 a month, his TV set might pick up as many as four different major league baseball games. Or he might switch back and forth from big-time tennis in Monte Carlo to big-time soccer in Frankfurt to big-time arm wrestling in Petaluma.
Squires receives the three commercial networks out of Spokane; the 24-hour, never-ending stream of sports from the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) in far-off Bristol, Conn.; and the three superstations: WTBS in Atlanta, which carries nearly all the Braves and Hawks games; WGN in Chicago, which does the White Sox and the Cubs; and WOR in New York City, which sends him the Mets.
Squires' face reflects something between ecstasy and euphoria when he speaks of the cornucopia of TV sports. "I grew up in San Diego and I am a Padres fan," he says, "but I've gotten to know the Atlanta Braves very well, thanks to WTBS. I had never seen lacrosse before, but I saw a Maryland-Navy game on ESPN, and now I keep hoping for more lacrosse. I see all kinds of things I never saw before. Everybody does. I watched the NFL draft for four hours this spring. I watched 33 NCAA tournament basketball games. My mother-in-law watches car races. Would you believe that? Hell, I know a guy in Lolo who gets up in the middle of the night to watch polo on ESPN!"
Polo in Lolo? Let's stop right there for a moment. The cultural extremes represented in that short rolling phrase are almost enough to overwhelm the imagination. And yet those five absurd, yet absurdly lovely syllables beautifully reflect what is happening in the vast world of television sport in the U.S. Polo in Lolo echoes an onrushing fragmentation of televised sport and of sporting tastes. Polo in Lolo signals an assault on what for three decades has been a commercial network monopoly of the choicest sports events. If big-time TV couldn't find the time of day for the NHL and could only sneak the NBA playoffs in through the back door at 11:30 p.m. as a kind of delayed-tape leper-orphan, the audience to be found in 10,000 Lolos clearly could bring about change—grand and volatile change.
In short, Polo in Lolo symbolizes the new clout of cable TV, of satellite broadcasts and of all sorts of dazzling systems of transmission and communication that soon will fill American living rooms with more hours of more sports than even the most channel-dazzled, game-crazed, ESPN-stoned junkie could have imagined. It also could forecast the end of most "free" television sport and the onset of a time when Americans will be charged admission to their own living rooms—perhaps as much as $25 for the Super Bowl, $100 for the World Series, $250 for an entire Olympics. The fact that a man in Lolo, Mont. can regularly indulge himself in what can only be described as the unnatural act of watching polo on his television set spells r-e-v-o-1-u-t-i-o-n for TV sport in America.
Twelve years ago this magazine published a series of articles detailing the impact of TV on sport—and vice versa—since the early 1940s, when television was but an experimental glimmer in fewer than 2,000 U.S. homes. We declared that America had entered an era in which all major sport had come under the operative control and philosophical influence of the commercial networks.