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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

SportsVision -- The Legacy?

Sometimes life can really give you a shot to the head.

For me it happened recently when I was scanning the WSI message boards and came across a reference to SportsVision. Under it was a message from a Sox fan who said he didnít remember what SportsVision was and could somebody explain it to him.

The first thing that went through my mind was "how could ANYBODY forget SportsVision?" Then came a chilling reminder....itís been 20 YEARS since the Sox unveiled this new way to watch the team.

Itís hard to believe, but a whole generation of Sox fans in their mid 20's, never saw Harold Baines or Carlton Fisk play in their prime. They donít realize how good LaMarr Hoyt pitched in 1983. They donít know that Tony LaRussa started his career and achieved his first measure of success as the White Sox manager, and they never heard of SportsVision.

Well thatís the inspiration for this article. Weíre going to tell you about SportsVision. What it was, who started it, why it didnít work and the consequences of it. As you read this youíll be getting a history of televised baseball in Chicago through the years, the development of the cable and satellite industries, the changing landscape of how sports is delivered into your home and the friction and egoís that came out in full force between the Sox owners and then main announcer Harry Caray; the ramifications of which are very much felt today not only for the Sox but also the Cubs.

Like the Grateful Dead sang..."what a long strange trip itís been..."

SportsVision : The Story

Letís start with the basics of SportsVision. It was the idea of Sox co-owner, president, and longtime television executive Eddie Einhorn. The purpose was to become the first real pay television channel in the country, that would deliver a number of sports events to a particular area (in this case Chicago). It would also deliver what for the time, would have been monster profit margins to the owners of the White Sox and in theory increased interest in the team because it would limit the number of games available on commercial or "free" TV.

Einhorn was one of the most knowledgeable and shrewd men in television sports. In the early 60's he came up with the idea of "regional" college basketball networks. The idea was that schools would sell their broadcasting rights to a central source, in this case the TVS Network. That network was associated with eccentric and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes who put up the money for equipment and production. Einhornís idea was that schools would sell TVS the right to show their games. Then he went out and sold those games to independent TV stations around the nation, that were looking to fill broadcasting time and thought the way to do it was with sports. The idea was a tremendous success giving schools like Notre Dame, UCLA, DePaul, Marquette and others the ability to get their games shown around the nation which not only helped recruiting efforts, but also gave alumni in different areas the chance to see their former college play.

In fact it was Einhorn who put college basketball on the TV map in 1968, with his landmark effort in airing UCLA, then with Lew Alcindor, against the University of Houston and their star Elvin Hayes. That contest marked the first time a college basketball game was televised nationally in prime time.

In marking the momentous occasion, TVS had the game moved to the gigantic Houston Astrodome, which erupted after the Cougars upset the Bruins snapping their long winning streak. That was the genesis for what is now known as "March Madness," the Menís NCAA Basketball Tournament, played in cavernous stadiums with most of the games at night. That game also made a local Los Angeles TV broadcaster a star. Dick Enberg, best known only in Southern California as the voice of the Rams and Angels, called that game, and it was the catalyst for a national career which still continues today.

Einhorn also was the inventor, and main producer of the weekend "CBS Sports Spectacular" series which brought fans such memorable shows as Brent Musberger calling the "worldís strongest man competition." in the 1970's. (After seeing weight lifters try to pull buses, and carry appliances on their backs, a new term was created for the meduim,†"trashsports".)

Einhorn knew the broadcasting business and was appalled when he got a look at the White Sox TV deal. In 1980, Bill Veeck signed a deal with Charles Dolan of Cablevision, an East Coast company that was getting into the "new" cable TV market. The two year deal payed the Sox 6,000 dollars per game, WGN also got the rights to show 60 Sox road games a season. The total worth of the deal to the Sox was only 840,000 a year. Dolan was a very sharp operator who took Veeck to the cleaners. Veeck, like most old time owners, felt that television was nice to have, but the real way to make money in baseball was at the gate.

(Authorís Note: Over the years Cablevision would become one of the largest media giants in the United States. Dolanís brother Larry would buy the Cleveland Indians from the Jacobs family and get into a war of words with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner this past Summer over the problems in baseball. Charles has had a "blood feud" with Steinbrenner since the Yankee owner pulled his club off Cablevision systems at the end of 1988 to go to the rival Madison Square Garden Network. Charles Dolan was part of a group who tried to buy the Boston Red Sox this past year. Dolan said his ambition was to match the Yankees dollar for dollar and knock them off their perch. When that fell through, he got his revenge by not allowing the new Yankee TV cable network YES to be shown on Cablevision systems. Many Yankee fans in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut are only able to watch the team when they are on "free TV," the local Fox affiliate.)

Einhorn overturned the deal and came up with the idea for SportsVision which became a reality in May 1982. The idea was to get Chicago sports fans to sign up for the service which would provide a steady diet of White Sox games (primarily home games) along with the Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Sting (soccer). The "channel" would be provided by local and area cable services as a "premium"(highest priced) service. At the time of launching, it cost most fans fifty dollars just to get it installed (you had to have a special descrambler), not counting the monthly fee which varied from system to system.

The idea proved to be a major failure as the original†target of 50,000 subscribers was never met. Even during the championship season of 1983 the subscriber base was far short of the original goal. The Sox claimed to have 30,000 subscribers but Bob Logan in his book, "Miracle On 35th Street," says the actual total was closer to 20,000.

Einhorn then wanted to change the service to a true "pay per view," option and charge three dollars per game to watch, but that never became a reality. Eventually SportsVision was sold off to Dolan and Cablevision and changed into Sportschannel - Chicago (part of a group of regional sports channels) which then was absorbed by Rupert Murdoch and his Fox Broadcasting Company and changed into what it is today, Fox Sports Chicago (part of the nationwide blanket of Fox regional sports affiliates).

What Went Wrong?

Frankly a lot of things. To get to the root of the problem, you have to go back in time to look at the history of Chicago televised baseball.

White Sox games first appeared on TV in Chicago courtesy of WGN in 1948. Jack Brickhouse and Harry Creighton were the first announcers. WGN quickly saw the appeal of televising both the Sox and Cubs as a means of filling air time and drawing advertising into the new medium. They did this with great success all through the 1950's. But broadcasting in those days was far different from today. Broadcast signals had to be relayed over large land lines at a very expensive cost. Microwave relays and transmitters, along with Earth orbiting satellites were still the dreams of science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke. WGN found out that the best way to maximize their profit was to televise as close to Chicago as possible, so they showed home games. WGN poured most of their resources into doing just this because they didnít have to pay so much for long distance transmission costs.

By 1962 WGN was televising every Sox home day game (with 18 road night ones). In 1964 they showed 64 total Sox games (13 road ones). The Cubs slate was about the same, meaning that Chicago was unique among all baseball towns by having so many games on "free" TV. In no other city, including New York, were so many games, or so many home games being shown.

The Sox left WGN for "greener" pastures after the 1967 season. They signed on with WFLD and the number of televised games exploded. By 1972, 129 games, both home and road, were being shown. 125 Sox games were being shown locally in 1973.

These totals also donít reflect the few additional games that the Sox appeared on the national Saturday " NBC Game of The Week" package. WGN kept pace by showing roughly the same number of Cub games.

By the time Einhorn came up with his idea of moving the Sox off of "free" TV in 1982, Chicagoans were conditioned like no other city, to getting virtually the entire baseball season for nothing. The bottom line was that when the Sox announced what they intended to do, they were met with a bunch of angry fans who rightly or wrongly expected, that they had the right to get virtually an unlimited number of games for free.

Add to that anger the fact that the nation, especially Chicago was going through an economic recession, not seen since the early 70's. People were out of work and simply could not afford the hook up fee, let alone the monthly charge to get the sports programming.

The idea of "pay per view" or cable TV was also in itís infancy. HBO (started by Dolan) came into existence in 1972 and just turned ten years old, ESPN began operations on September 7, 1979 with George Grande (who now does the play by play of televised Cincinnati Reds games) and Lee Leonard as the first hosts of "SportsCenter." The idea of an advanced, relatively cheap national or regional television channel devoted to sports was a difficult idea to grasp. The technology wasnít fully developed yet either, from satellites which provided crystal clear digital picture and sound, to the graphics and statistics needed in the important production aspect of showing sports events.

Einhornís idea was brilliant, but like most things done by the current ownership group, the TIMING was wrong. If SportsVision had come along even five years later, its chances for success would have been much greater. If the idea had first been conceived in a baseball crazy market like Detroit, Baltimore or St. Louis and worked, it would have been easier to accept. For that matter, if Chicago was simply a one team town, it probably would have worked because fans wouldnít have had any choices. In Chicago though, the Cubs were still offering fans their games for "nothing." which added to the resentment felt by Sox fans.

Committing "Harry Caray"

But one more problem developed because of the SportsVision idea which had long term negative effects towards the Sox. That involved popular announcer Harry Caray. Caray had been with the Sox since 1971 and had developed a tremendous following. In many desolate years Caray was the ONLY reason to pay any attention to the Sox. His style was aggressive, he wasnít afraid to pan the players or for that matter rip the owners. Caray wasnít a saint by any means, he had a tremendous ego himself and could be spiteful towards those he didnít care for, like fellow announcer J.C. Martin, whom Caray felt had no business being in a television booth, but to Sox fans he was the best asset the team had.

When Einhorn and his partner Jerry Reinsdorf took over the Sox, Caray became intolerable to them. Einhorn is quoted in Loganís book as saying, "we were a freak show. The fans thought Harry and Jimmy (Piersall) were the stars. Things were insane."

Caray for his part, kept his personal feelings about the new owners and his relationship with them to himself, until the ties were severed between them. Afterwards he made no bones about how he felt, saying in his autobiography that Sox fans would ask him why he left and why he went to the Cubs. Caray said he loved Sox fans and loved Comiskey Park but he couldnít stand the owners, going so far as to call them "assholes" in the book and saying they knew nothing about running a team. (A feeling echoed by Carlton Fisk in the 1994 PBS televison special Frontline: The Trouble With Baseball. Fisk is quoted on camera as saying that when the new owners took over, "it was clear then knew nothing about the game, although they thought they did.")

Despite the strained relationship the Sox would have brought Caray back for the 1982 season when he decided to leave and signed a deal with the Cubs.

In Loganís book, Caray had this to say, "they wanted to sign me again, but with SportsVision, the White Sox are the best kept secret in Chicago. If their games were on free TV, theyíd own the town now and be a byword across the nation." (Authorís Note: because of now "Superstation WGN") I gave them some good advice at that contract meeting. I told them, Ďyou guys came in as owners with a positive image and became villains by taking Jimmy (Piersall) out of the broadcast booth. Why donít you get back in the fansí good graces by putting us back together on the TV teamí" Caray continued with Reinsdorfís reply. "Jerry answered, ĎHarry, Iíll be up in heaven looking down before Piersall broadcasts another one of our games,í and Einhorn said, Ďwith you or without you, the White Sox are going into SportsVision and away from free TVí"

Loganís book quotes Caray as saying "thatís when I made up my mind to leave. They were talking about maybe reaching 50,000 homes on pay TV instead of the 22 million people who watch the Cubs on WGN."

The final word in the Caray / Sox owners feud came on the night of September 17, 1983. After the Sox clinched the Western Division Championship and before a national audience, since WGN received permission to take the SportsVision feed of the 9th inning and post game interviews, Reinsdorf issued a final blast. During an interview with "Hawk" Harrelson, Reinsdorf said, "Harry and Jimmy wherever you are, I hope you realize what scum you are." Harrelson was momentarily speechless.

Like him or not, letting Caray leave turned out to be a huge mistake. Caray became the "Pied Piper" of the North Side and came into the situation just about the time the "Wrigleyville" neighborhood became trendy with young, upscale individuals who decided going to see the Cubs was the thing to do. The Cubs made the playoffs in 1984 and with their games being shown coast to coast on WGN, fans everywhere who didnít owe an allegiance to a particular team, seemed to become Cub fans.

The Cubs would ride this wave to become the dominant team in Chicago despite many lousy years on the playing field. They would win the important public relations battle for the hearts and minds of neutral Chicagoans. With fans flocking to see the "shrine" (i.e. Wrigley Field) it didnít matter if the Cubs won or lost, they were making money hand over foot.

The Sox meanwhile spiraled into what seems to be a permanent indifference among many Chicagoans and baseball fans nationally, despite usually having better records, better players and a new stadium. This has led to a deep bitterness in the organization that blames the fans and especially the media, for their problems. Itís led to a "bunker mentality" and has gone so far as to have Reinsdorf saying in a radio interview that the Cubs have "always" owned Chicago.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ultimately thatís the "legacy" of SportsVision, basically a good idea that went very, very wrong.

As always comments, questions, insults, puns and satiric remarks are always welcome. Contact me at mliptak1@ida.net


Editor's Note: †Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work. †He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper†organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana)†and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years. †"Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.

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