But over and
beyond its topicality, the Pay-TV-versus-Free-TV issue is one in which sports
are concerned in a long-range and quite decisive way. In the first place, as is
acknowledged by O'Neil and practically everyone on the Pay TV side, the
profitability of a Pay TV system will depend very considerably on its being
able to televise and charge for sports events. The ones that are now being
broadcast free (that is, sponsored by advertisers) can be dismissed from the
reckoning; the ones that count are those now blacked out either locally, like
the home games of practically all pro and amateur teams in major sports, or
nationally, like championship boxing matches. Without getting into the
economics of the matter just yet, a single statistic will explain the stakes.
There hasn't been a million-dollar gate at a heavyweight championship fight
since the passing of Mike Jacobs, but the home box office alone in a reasonably
well developed Pay TV national hookup of such a battle could quite conceivably
amount to $10 million.
Or $11 million. Or
$20 million. Why not? One needs only to relax and lean back a bit to have all
kinds of carefree fun with figures in this area. There are, after all, more
than 50 million TV sets in this country. Suppose half of them were equipped to
receive Pay TV programs: that would be 25 million. Suppose half of these tuned
in the heavyweight championship: that would be 12.5 million. Suppose the charge
for such an important event was $3.50. Wouldn't that be $43,750,000? Wouldn't
it? It is thoughts such as these, usually coming on just at bedtime when the
mind floats whither it will, that drive Pay TV entrepreneurs almost insane with
desire and give network-TV executives nightmares.
sports fans feel any mission to gratify the dreams of sports promoters. What is
to the point here is whether Pay TV will be good for sports, both spectator and
participant. And this requires just a little exploration of what Free TV's
effects on sports already has been—for better and for worse.
On the positive
side, it is perfectly obvious that TV has hugely increased the nation's
familiarity with, and interest in, sports of all sorts, from bowling to
baseball to badminton. There are old ladies in rocking chairs right this minute
who can reel off the batting averages of the entire Yankee roster; furthermore,
they have grandsons who play in the Little League and use up large quantities
of bats, balls, mitts and Band-Aids. People who watch bowling on TV are likely
to develop a yen to try it themselves. All in all, sporting activities of one
sort or another, directly or indirectly resulting from TV viewing, now involve
the yearly expenditure of extra billions of dollars.
On the negative
side, the effect of TV on gate receipts has ranged from poor to disastrous.
Consider the following:
?The Friday night
fights at Madison Square Garden used to bring out about 12,000 paying
customers. In the 13 years since the fights began to acquire a major television
audience, average attendance was down 90%, to 1,200. As for the small clubs,
the training grounds for new fighters, there used to be about 300 of them:
today there are fewer than 50.
?From 1947 to
1957, TV's first decade of large-scale operation, attendance at major league
baseball games dropped 20%. What with blacking out home games and shifting
franchises to new territories, it has since gone up again to almost the
enthusiastic postwar level, but in the minor leagues it has gone down 63%, and
minor leagues have declined in number from 59 to only 24. Or, to put it in a
In 1959, when
Milwaukee and Los Angeles were fighting it out for the pennant, crowds at the
Los Angeles Coliseum ran as big as 60,000 and 70,000 people. The decisive game
was on September 29, and Walter O'Malley, in a strangely experimental spirit,
let it be televised. Only 36,000 fans made it to the ball park.
A few years ago
Albany, one game away from the Eastern League championship, was playing New
Haven for the clincher in a night game at the 10,000-seat Albany stadium. It
was a fine, clear September night, perfect for an evening at the ball park.
Unfortunately, however, the Dodgers and Giants were playing that night, too,
and their game was being telecast. The crowd that turned out to see Albany win
the pennant totaled 34 people.
college and professional, was in trouble from the moment TV came on the scene.
With unlimited broadcasting in 1949 and 1950, attendance at college games
dropped 1,400,000. The National Collegiate Athletic Association hurriedly put
the lid on, and now it allows only nine telecasts a year, each restricted to a
specified area of the country. Attendance is up again but still is only at
about the level of the pre-TV era, in spite of much bigger college enrollments
and a considerable increase in general population. Pro football has done
relatively better, but only after the National Professional Football League had
laid down the iron rule that there could be no TV reception of a game within a
radius of 75 miles of the place where it was being played.