ESSAY / Bill Shirley : Television: It's the New Ruler of Sports

To a reporter familiar with the hostility that once existed between newspapers and television, a press conference called by ABC at San Francisco during the week of the Super Bowl game was astonishing.

ABC swept into town with tons of equipment, an army of employees, several miles of cable and a lineup of celebrity announcers, then invited reporters in to hear how it would televise the game. Remarkably, about 200 sportswriters showed up.

This was further proof of the clout television has in sports today. When it covers an event, it often becomes news. Nobody seems to care much how a newspaper does its job.

Newspapers and television have never been the best of friends. Some of the enmity probably stems from professional jealousy, since television pays better and seems to get preferential treatment from teams and promoters.

But many sportswriters are offended by television's coverage of sports for stronger reasons. Most of the medium's reporting is shallow and much of it is more show business than journalism. In sports, as in other news, pictures can distort a story when it is not accompanied by adequate commentary.

Once, when television had less impact on our lives than it has today, many newspapers virtually ignored it.

Sportswriters, particularly, viewed their new competition with scorn. As television's cameras and microphones intruded on interviews and press conferences, some sportswriters fought back. They spoiled television reporters' tapes with profanity and demanded that the interlopers be banished to a separate press room.

As television grew more dominant, the sportswriters' resentment increased in direct proportion to the medium's intrusion into events. Television bought exclusive rights to games and often dictated their dates and starting times to willing promoters. Games began to be played at odd hours. Access to the principals usually went to television first, and newspaper reporters fumed and worried about deadlines.

Television, in fact, drastically altered the character of sports events and the reporting of them in newspapers.

The Professional Golfers' Assn. abandoned match-play tournaments because stars often were eliminated in early rounds, leaving a network with a show it couldn't sell. The double round on the final day, Saturday, of the U.S. Open also was scrapped so a network could televise the final round on Sunday.

Eighteen-hole playoffs were abandoned for virtually all tournaments because they usually were anticlimactic and because networks didn't like to hang around an extra day to televise a dull show to a smaller number of viewers. Even the sudden-death playoffs today begin at the 15th hole for television. Monday night football games begin at inconvenient times--depending on the time zone, as early as 6 p.m. and as as late as 9 p.m.--for television. The Super Bowl game started after 3 p.m. for television. Colleges switch football dates for television.

Baseball accommodates television by scheduling World Series games at night when more viewers are likely to see them, an accommodation that sometimes embarrasses the sport. Some games are played in temperatures better suited to ice skating, and parts of others are played in half-light. Horrendous travel problems arise if a postponed game is played on a scheduled day off.

Football, baseball, golf and other sports make these accommodations voluntarily, of course, because the nation's major corporations virtually subsidize them through television.

How much clout does television have? The late Bear Bryant, football coach at Alabama, once said, "We think TV exposure is so important to our program and so important to the university that . . . I'll play at midnight if that's what TV wants."

Boxing would not survive without television. The United States Football League would never have started without ABC's help. The astonishing profit made on the Los Angeles Olympic Games was about the same amount ABC paid for the right to televise them.

While some games do not translate effectively to the little screen--hockey and soccer are two--virtually all sports have prospered from television. So have athletes. Prize money and salaries have escalated enormously because of the big fees television pays for exclusivity.

The game that has profited the most has been football. The selling of this game to the U.S. public is one of the marvels of the television age. The networks have poured billions of dollars into the sport, and for their generosity have extracted from it schedules to fit their programming, extra interruptions for commercials, and rules changes to jazz up the game. Television, more than newspapers, presents sports as entertainment. Dull games equal low ratings.

Although television has been mainly responsible for turning millions of Americans into sports junkies, it has ridden to much of its success on the coattails of newspapers. Sports were popular with the masses, who followed them in their daily paper, long before television came along. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Bill Tilden, Jesse Owens, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange became legends through the prose of sportswriters.

Television merely capitalized on a market ready made for it and suited for its cameras. It still gets help from sportswriters. The popularity of a team or an event today depends largely on the free coverage it gets from local papers. Fans get little news and few informed opinions on their teams and idols from television, and even if they have watched a game on the screen, or in person, most of them still turn to the sports section for a judgment of its significance or a confirmation of their prejudices.

There seems to be no detail too trivial for the average sports junkie. Nostalgia and statistics are his narcotics. Still, many sports editors, reacting to television's overwhelming edge in immediacy and pictures, changed the way they did business. They abandoned their routine fare of game coverage and started probing beyond the scores.

This change of focus attracted more skillful sportswriters, who began to deal openly and thoughtfully with race, drugs and cheating scandals, combining incisive reporting with social insight. Defeats and lapses by teams and athletes were treated as importantly as politics and religion. The irony was that sportswriting and sports sections became better because of television.

As television grew more popular and dominant in our lives, most newspapers' attitudes toward it changed. The medium itself became major news, and today most papers have critics and reporters who specialize in television news. Many, including The Times, have one who writes exclusively on sports programming.

Virtually nothing television does today goes unreported, including how it covers sports. After the Super Bowl game, ABC's performance was analyzed almost as thoroughly as the game. Did O.J. have a good game? Did Joe Theismann talk too much? Did Don Meredith say anything? Was Frank Gifford as smooth as usual? Apparently, editors think the world cares about such things.

Television long ago adopted the star system to compete in a costly, high-pressure business. Former coaches and athletes are hired by the networks to attract viewers. The medium would be better served by professional announcers who do their homework and speak English.

Newspapers, except in a few markets, rarely face the intense competition that ABC, NBC and CBS face virtually every day. Addressing the escalating rivalry among the networks, ABC executive vice president Jim Spence said: "If ABC buys the rights to televise a triathlon, CBS gets one, and I wouldn't be surprised if NBC comes up with one."

ABC, with an impressive list of Emmys, Olympic Games expertise and its popular "Monday Night Football" and "Wide World of Sports" shows, seems to have an edge over its competitors. In Spence, the network also has a spokesman who talks openly about his business.

ABC shoots for a good mix of events, then tries to promote and publicize them better than the others. The intense competition, however, is making it more difficult and costly to obtain a proper mix, Spence said.

The network has dropped some of its weak shows, including some bowling and the "American Sportsman." It's once-popular Superstars was scrapped. "We felt it had run its course," he said.

With quality fights becoming too scarce and costly, ABC is cutting back on boxing and focusing on championship bouts. Television's role as a matchmaker in boxing has been criticized by sportswriters, who say it is a conflict of interest. ABC, for example, signed five Olympic boxing champions, obtaining exclusive rights to show five of each boxer's fights over the next two years. ABC doesn't select their opponents, but it retains the right to approve them. The network once had a similar contract with Sugar Ray Leonard.

Spence said it is wrong for a network to get involved in matchmaking and argued that what ABC does is not the same thing. "In reality, though, you have to get involved some," he said. "I wish we didn't."

Why not just sign boxers for a show the way the networks sign actors, Spence was asked. It's all entertainment, isn't it?

"We can't promote," Spence replied. "We'd need a license."

The conflict-of-interest accusation bothers him. "We don't own the kids," he said. "On the other hand, they can't fight for CBS or NBC. God knows we haven't been perfect. We're involved more now than we should be in the boxing business."

ABC has had to put a hold on its close relationship with boxing promoter Don King, who has been indicted for income tax evasion. ABC, because of its frequent dealings with King, was named in the indictment, and until the case is resolved, "We can't do business as usual," Spence said.

Oddly, ABC is having the most problems with television's most popular sport, football. Its telecast of the Sugar Bowl game New Year's night drew the lowest rating, 7.2, of all the major bowls. ABC has tried televising the game on New Year's Eve and New Year's night to avoid going head to head with NBC's telecast of the Rose Bowl. The promoters prefer New Year's night even though it is opposite the Orange Bowl, Spence said.

Ratings for ABC's "Monday Night Football" telecasts were off last season and the network lost money on its 1984 college telecasts, which averaged only an 8.3 rating. The network is also demanding that the United States Football League live up to its agreement to play spring football. "The fall market has enough football," Spence said.

The payment of rights fees usually gives a network much of its clout, but ABC doesn't have much when it televises the Indianapolis 500. It must delay its telecast because the promoters fear that a live show will leave some of the their 240,000 tickets unsold. Spence would rather televise it live but said, "We probably couldn't do it as well."

Although newspapers focus daily on routine games and events in what are generally believed to be the major sports, many television viewers apparently would rather watch something else. "Wide World of Sports," a mixed-bag of events known in the trade as an anthology series, remains after almost a quarter of a century what Spence calls ABC's "bread and butter . . . flagship series."

The Jan. 21 Wide World, featuring skiing and a Super Bowl feature story, drew a rating of 8.9. The Bob Hope golf tournament on NBC had only a 5.0. Featuring a triathlon the other day, Wide World outdrew the Los Angeles Open on CBS. It frequently outdraws basketball, golf, boxing, tennis and even baseball while showing events that rate little attention on the sports pages.

What it means, Spence believes, is that Americans are interested in an anthology series. "There's too much basketball on television," he said. "There is a limited interest in golf. Our audience, a family audience, is more interested in a blend, a mix, than boxing."

As rights fees get more costly, the networks grow more cautious. NBC and ABC signed a six-year contract with baseball for $1.25 billion after ABC, according to Spence, had driven the figure down dramatically. "Frankly, it shouldn't be that high," he said. ABC refused the contract at first. Then when CBS also passed, Spence said, "Baseball came back to us a second time."

The bidding for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games at Calgary got out of hand. ABC paid an astonishing figure, $309 million, for the rights mainly to keep its Olympic tradition going--it has televised nine of the last 12--and to have, as Spence said, "Calgary in hand as we approach Seoul."

Spence said Olympic auctions, in which production quality and experience count less than dollars, are degrading. "We will not go through that process again," he said. ABC would rather negotiate for the rights.

No matter what U.S. network gets the rights to televise the Games from Seoul, some events will have to be rescheduled so they can be shown on prime time. ABC has heard all the complaints about tampering with Olympic tradition but its conscience is clear. "We have not asked for a change in the schedule," Spence said. "We're not pushing for it."

Of course, he doesn't need to. The fact is, the price a network pays for the rights will be directly affected by the scheduling. That's the kind of clout television has today. For about half a billion dollars, the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post could buy the Olympics, too.

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