In the winter between the 1972 and 1973 baseball seasons, the Dodgers encountered some strange static.
One of their broadcast partners suddenly didn’t want to broadcast all of their games. The folks at KFI radio decided they wanted to skip spring training. The ratings were low. The cost was high. The business didn’t work.
The Dodgers didn’t agree. The Dodgers viewed spring training as a chance to reconnect with the fans, generate interest, drive ticket sales. Fred Claire, their marketing boss at the time, was sent to deliver a message to KFI’s general manager, James Wesley.
“I met with Jim and told him, ‘This is important to the Dodgers, this means a lot to us, and if we can’t negotiate this, we’ll go to another station,’ ” Claire recalled. “They still wouldn’t negotiate.”
And the rest is Los Angeles radio history, as the Dodgers immediately dumped KFI and moved to KABC, where they flourished for the next 25 seasons.
Now, if only somebody with today’s Dodgers had the strength to stomp on SportsNet LA.
In a move that echoed the broadcast turmoil of winter 1972, but without similar consequences, the Dodgers’ ghost television network made yet another galling decision recently when it announced it was cutting back spring training broadcasts from 31 to 16.
It sounds like a joke, but it’s real. A network that exists solely to telecast Dodgers games will not be telecasting some Dodgers games. A network accessible to only 40% of Southern California homes has decided, what the heck, let’s shut out everyone.
And so during these Dodgers game blackouts, a network that broadcasts 24 hours of Dodgers every day will be broadcasting . . . what exactly? Now this part really does sound like a prank.
On March 8, when the Dodgers are playing the Chicago Cubs in Arizona, SportsNet LA will broadcast the Dodgers playing the Cubs in 2006.
Luckily for local baseball fans, there is always FS West, which will broadcast 31 Angels spring games, including being the sole television provider for the first two Dodgers-Angels Cactus League games March 9 and 11.
No, this is not about the importance of watching spring exhibitions, which become awfully boring when all the good players hit the golf courses by the fifth inning. No, SportsNet LA is not alone in taking a spring break, as most teams televise only a smattering of games — and even KLAC radio is broadcasting only 14 games from Arizona. And yes, it makes sense when Time Warner Cable officials say they are cutting back because of lousy midweek afternoon ratings.
But when the Dodgers and Time Warner Cable continue to deny 60% of Southern California households a chance to watch their team because of ego and greed, then each misstep becomes more galling than the previous one, and every stumble becomes emblematic of a legendary fall.
At this point in the three-year debacle, it is worth wondering whether this might be the worst team-TV partnership in modern sports history. If the Dodgers keep Vin Scully from Los Angeles during his final season, that seals it.
“They have a problem, they know they have a problem, and they have to find a way to resolve it,” said Claire, who was the Dodgers’ general manager when they last played in a World Series in 1988. “It’s complicated, but it affects Dodger fans, and any time a team makes a decision that directly impacts the fans, you have to give that every consideration of what that impact is going to be.’’
The impact is not felt in the stands, where the Dodgers have continually led the major leagues in attendance. But it’s prevalent in the lack of Dodgers buzz, and the fading luster of the Dodgers brand, which has fallen behind the Lakers and could soon fall behind the incoming Los Angeles Rams.
“I think it is as bad a public relations gaffe as I’ve ever heard of,” said Ross Porter, a longtime Dodgers broadcaster who called games during the Claire era. “If you can’t get a deal done the first year, that’s bad. If you can’t get a deal done the second year, it’s unbelievable. Now, a third year? Vin’s final year? It’s the worst negotiating I’ve ever heard of.”
While this column space has been filled with thousands of words ripping the TV deal over the last three years — and they’re going to keep coming — a physical education teacher from Rolling Hills Country Day School has gone the extra mile.
Charitie McArthur has written the Dodgers 24 emails politely asking for the TV deal to be reworked so she can watch the final year of Scully. The Dodgers responded by sending her souvenirs like wristbands, key chains and pencils to hand out to her students. But nothing has happened with her TV, and she claims she will keep writing until it does.
“I’m surprised it’s gone this long, it shocks me that so many people won’t have access to someone of Vin’s caliber,” said McArthur, who is such a big fan that in 2005, she was married at Dodger Stadium’s home plate. “It’s just a shame because you’re losing so many kids who would only watch them on TV.”
Of course, if McArthur wants to watch her beloved team, she can just attend the games, right? Well, not exactly. After the price of her shared season-ticket package increased 40% in recent years, she recently canceled them.
The Dodgers remain out of sight, and out of their minds.