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The fledgling United States Football League (SI, May 24) has landed a network TV contract, a breakthrough that gives the USFL instant credibility. None other than Roone Arledge, the ranking genius and eternal innovator of network news and sports, will be shelling out $22 million of ABC's money for the privilege of covering the upstart league's first two seasons, which will run from March through June beginning in 1983. What's more, Arledge had to outhustle NBC to get the deal, thus creating the remarkable and unprecedented spectacle of a network bidding war over rights to a league that won't even play its first game for another nine months. Under the terms of the contract, during the USFL's inaugural season ABC will carry 17 regular-season games—one in prime time, the others on Sunday afternoons—plus two playoff games and the league championship game.
The tie-in with ABC will undoubtedly make it easier for the USFL to attract players and coaches, not to mention fans. It should also make deals for the use of stadiums easier to close. Perhaps best of all, it will enable the USFL to be flexible—and less desperate—in arranging a supplemental package of national cable (or superstation) and local telecasts. Mike Trager, the USFL's TV consultant and the man who negotiated the ABC contract for the league, says, "Now we can look for quality exposure in our other TV arrangements. We're not forced to go for the biggest money. For example, even if the income is less, we might go for over-the-air local channels because they're received in many more homes than most local cable services. Our criterion is no longer only money—and that's a great advantage."
Not that the money is unimportant. USFL clubs, like those in the NFL, will share all TV revenues equally, and each will receive a tidy sum. The ABC deal will produce about $900,000 per season for each of the USFL's 12 franchises, and league officials expect to secure cable and local TV contracts worth another $600,000 per annum per team. The $1.5 million-per-team total is a pittance, of course, compared to the $14.2 million that each NFL club will receive from that league's lavish new three-network package—but then, the NFL is light years ahead of all other pro sports leagues. This includes baseball, which pools its network TV revenues but not receipts from local telecasts and, as a consequence, has huge disparities in income among individual teams. For example, while the Montreal Expos' success in tapping virtually the entire Canadian market has swollen their TV income to a near-NFLish $10 million a year, the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers, all of which operate in TV tank towns, get only $3 million a year each. In the NBA, another league that doesn't share local broadcast revenues, there may be one or two established franchises—the Indiana Pacers, for instance—whose annual income from television is less than the $1.5 million that each USFL club stands to take in. Indeed, the average broadcast revenues in the NBA work out to barely $2 million per team, and that includes TV-rich clubs like the Celtics and Lakers. It's also important to note that the USFL will have lower travel expenses and generally lower player salaries than either baseball or the NBA; the USFL brass is thinking in terms of club payrolls in the neighborhood of $2 million vs. roughly $5 million in baseball and $3 million or more for a typical NBA club. The comparable figure in the NFL is at least $4 million.
None of this guarantees that the USFL will automatically become a staple of the American sports diet. Even Arledge cautions that the USFL may not be an instant hit in the ratings, saying, "Given time and given exposure, we expect the ratings to grow." And even if the ratings are promising at first, there's no assurance that the USFL will have staying power. As the NHL and the NASL both found out when network contracts were canceled because of sagging ratings, TV can show people a game, but it can't make them like it. But this much is sure: The USFL's contract with ABC gives it a foundation to build on that no other aborning professional sports league has ever enjoyed.
SAY, AREN'T YOU BILL WALSH?
A PACKAGE DEAL YOU CAN'T REFUSE
Like a lot of losing teams, the Utah Jazz has a small but faithful nucleus of season-ticket holders but hasn't had much luck attracting a broader following. Recently the Jazz, which drew an average of just 7,700 fans a game this season and says it needs to raise that to nearly 10,000 to turn a profit, came up with a novel scheme for filling seats. The club has enlisted season ticket-holders to, in effect, sell tickets. The key to the plan is what may or may not be—depending on how one looks at it—a dramatic increase for the 1982-83 season in the price of the best seats. These tickets sold for $10 and $12 in 1981-82, and they will now cost $20 and $30, respectively. However, customers actually are being offered a package deal because they will be given a "bonus" of two lower-priced season tickets for each higher-priced one purchased. For example, the buyer of a $20 ticket will get two tickets that sold this season for $5 or $7.50 each. A purchaser of a $30 ticket will receive two additional tickets that sold for $10 or $12. Buyers can either sell the bonus tickets or give them away; in the case of corporations, which have made up a good share of the Jazz's season ticket-holders in past years, the tickets presumably would be distributed among employees. The club apparently assumed that ardent Jazz fans would be willing to swallow hard and pay the higher prices rather than be left out in the cold.
After the plan was announced, some season ticket-holders complained that the Jazz was taking advantage of people who supported the team and had priced tickets out of the reach of all but the wealthiest purchasers. One holder of season tickets grumbled, "You're asking us to pay $30 a seat and then become a salesman for you." Undeterred by such criticism, the club gave its 2,800 1981-82 season ticket-holders until May 1 to commit themselves to renew their seats for next season. Roughly 1,600 of them did so, the automatic result being that the Jazz had sold—unloaded might be the better word—4,800 season tickets for 1982-83. With the sale of season tickets now open to the public at large, a Jazz spokeswoman says that team officials are "all smiles" over how well the unique arrangement appears to be working. She also says that three other NBA teams have approached the Jazz for information about the scheme.
ON VACATION, AS ALWAYS