"What hurts the gate in the NFL is not TV but a losing team," says Rozelle. Adds Gene Autry, a cable TV entrepreneur in several cities and owner of the California Angels, "We have not found that TV hurts our attendance at all. It probably helps. If we're playing a three-game series with the Yankees at home and we telecast the first game by pay TV, we usually find that the attendance for the next two games picks up."
Tom Villante spent 20 years in advertising before coming to Bowie Kuhn's office two years ago. He says, "TV is the most potent sales force known to man. TV sells your ball club. It's an energizer. There has never been a case in which, when the TV ratings went up, the gate went down. What hurts the baseball gate is what else is on TV. In the early days clubs weren't hurt by the televising of their games but by The Milton Berle Show and I Love Lucy."
To Villante's way of thinking, the type of TV that is most destructive today is the baseball beamed out by the three superstations: WTBS in Atlanta, which, in a non-strike year, broadcasts 150 Braves games by means of 3,250 cable systems, some so small they have only 200 subscribers; WGN in Chicago, which does 146 Cubs and 64 White Sox games by means of 1,548 systems; and WOR in New York, which airs 100 Mets games by means of 890 systems. The superstations rain games down on all 50 states and have a total potential reach of perhaps 21 million viewers.
Because of their enormous range, the superstations can create pockets of Braves, Cubs, White Sox or Mets fans among people who live thousands of miles away from the cities where these teams are based. Says Villante, "Ted Turner's station is carrying all those Atlanta games to a kid who lives, say, in Cleveland. The boy gets this tremendous load of Braves games on his TV, and he gets to love the team. Well, that's how you fragment a local baseball market. What good is a kid who lives in Cleveland carrying around an Atlanta Braves pennant? Not only is he not a fan of the Cleveland Indians, but he isn't even a fan of the American League. He's the least productive fan in all of sports."
Troublesome—and popular—as the superstations have been, many TV people think they're already dinosaurs of a kind. Even Robert Wussler, former president of CBS Sports and now executive vice-president of Turner's cable operations, says, "The economics will not be the same again, and there will be no more superstations. There is no way to control who watches them. Sports on TV in the future will be increasingly local, increasingly focused on specific sports, specific teams, specific fans."
They call this narrow casting, and what it means' is that sheer bulk numbers will no longer be the one and only standard for measuring success on TV. "There is a growing opinion that the way the commercial networks work is a terrible waste of money," says John A. Ledingham Jr., assistant professor of journalism at San Diego State. "Shows that aren't pinpointed to specific markets aren't going to cut it much longer. When the advertiser is given the option of reaching a researched and pinpointed market, he will move away from the networks' hit-and-miss markets in favor of the specialty market."
At long last the all-powerful standard of Mass Appeal will become far less significant. For once, there will be a place for programs—and sports—of Mini Appeal. There will be a place—and a reason—for television to cater to the wants and whims of the minority, the eccentric, the off-the-wall outcast who likes things that don't appeal to the masses.
Hockey is a perfect example. Jerry Buss, who also owns the Los Angeles Kings, says, "Why won't hockey work on NBC or ABC or CBS? Because it doesn't have the mass popularity the networks must have. To survive on advertiser-supported networks, a program has to get 25% of an audience—of a national audience with every kind of individual in it—or the economics fall flat. Get 25% or die! But on a pay channel, there's no difference between getting 1% or 10% or 100%. The only thing that matters is how much money you take in through subscriptions. On those grounds, hockey can make it on TV."
Says Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC Sports, "God knows, there must be at least one million homes in this country with hockey freaks—right? Say you get those one million hockey nuts to pay $3 a week for a full menu of hockey—every night, every day. That brings you $3 million a week. You spread that over seven months of the NHL season, and you've made a fortune. It will happen, and it's what will save hockey."
This is the kind of fragmentation that television sport faces. A channel for everyone and everyone for a channel: a hockey channel, a soccer channel, an indoor-soccer channel, a trash-sport channel, a channel for sport scandals, a channel for Christian athletes, a channel for Little League, a channel for Notre Dame, for USC....