A question for the fans: As baseball enters its climactic month, is it time for White Sox President and pay-TV architect Eddie Einhorn to take a bow? Or should he hang down his head, now that he charges Chicago shut-ins $21.95 a month to see TV games they previously watched for free?
Aside from Einhorn, who thinks pay TV will be the salvation of the Sox, and former Sox announcer Harry Caray, who describes Einhorn's plan as "un-American," nobody knows for sure. The only certainty is this: Einhorn has embarked on a scheme that could make the White Sox both the gold mine and powerhouse of the American League West.
First, a quick peek at Eddie's resum�.
Cheeky, flamboyant, a street hustler and proud of it. Smart enough in the early 1960s to have rounded up the TV basketball rights to all the major college conferences, to have thereby founded the TVS sports network and to have later sold the pretty little package to Dun & Bradstreet for more than $5 million. Inventive enough as executive producer of CBS's Sports Spectacular to have lifted that show in the ratings even though it featured men racing while carrying refrigerators on their backs. As Eddie says, more honestly than arrogantly, "I'm always two years ahead of my time."
Now for some recent history about pay TV, which will land Einhorn in either the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Comiskey Park doghouse. As recently as 1980, one year before Einhorn and Chicago real estate syndicator Jerry Reinsdorf bought the club, the White Sox showed 140 of their games on conventional TV. Back then, Einhorn says, owner Bill Veeck was being paid the laughably low sum of $2,000 per game by a local VHF station for the telecast rights. "If 600 people didn't show up at a home game because they watched it on television, he [Veeck] lost money," Einhorn says.
Enter Eddie and his pay-TV blueprint. He swallowed hard and accepted the TV deal Veeck had just negotiated for 1981: a total of 60 Sox games on WGN for the still-deflated sum of $360,000. But he quickly began preaching an unusual message to owners of other teams in town. The gospel according to Einhorn: "Why keep trying to sell our rights to middlemen, often at fire-sale prices? Why not form our very own 365-nights-a-year network? We'll give fans quality, not quantity. Plus the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts."
The result was the debut last May of SportsVision, an over-the-air subscription television service that currently offers 60 Sox games, 56 Bulls games, 56 Black Hawks games and 28 games of the Chicago Sting. Boxing, tennis and AL games not involving the Sox fill out the schedule which covers every night of the year. A decoding box on each subscriber's set unscrambles the picture and sound. The basic fee? A tidy $21.95 per month, not to mention $52.95 for installation. (No, Alfred E. Neuman doesn't appear on the cover of the White Sox yearbook saying, "Cheap!")
Einhorn kept some 45 Sox games on conventional TV this year, but that number will shrink to a minimum of 30 next season when SportsVision shows 112 games. Thus, viewers will be lured to pay for what they always got for free. Some folks take umbrage at this, including Caray, who switched to the Cubs this year after 10 years of broadcasting freebies for the White Sox.
"To me, it's un-American," Caray says. "Baseball is a game that belongs to the people. The White Sox were dangling some big figures in front of me, but I got to thinking, 'Where is that guy who made me what I am today, that bartender and that shut-in and that cabdriver?' I got to thinking, 'Well, these guys aren't going to be able to afford listening to me.' "
"That's Neanderthal thinking," retorts Einhorn. "Nothing is free." No one, of course, forced Einhorn to buy the Sox. And Eddie hasn't yet been heard to say that if SportsVision strikes gold, he'll turn over half the profits to an orphanage. But he does make a logical—if not incontrovertible—point. If the White Sox don't develop another major source of revenue, the ball game's over. Gate, conventional TV and concessions won't finance a winner anymore.