Baseball to CBS; NBC Strikes Out : ABC Also Falls Short as 4-Year Package Goes for $1 Billion

Times Staff Writer

Beginning in 1990, CBS will be the baseball network. NBC, which has been televising baseball since 1947, and ABC, involved since 1975, will be out.

CBS won exclusive network rights to major league baseball Wednesday by agreeing to pay slightly more than $1 billion over 4 seasons, 1990 through 1993.

CBS, discarding NBC's "Game of the Week" format, will televise only 12 regular-season games on selected Saturdays and Sundays, plus the All-Star game, the playoffs and the World Series. Even if both playoff series and the World Series go the full 7 games, that still is only 34 games a season.

For this, CBS will pay an average of more than $250 million a season.

NBC, in 1989, will pay $115 million for the right to televise 30 Saturday games, 2 prime-time regular-season games, the All-Star game and the playoff series. NBC admits it will lose money.

ABC will pay about the same for the right to televise an undetermined number of Monday night games--it did only 8 last season--plus the 1989 World Series. ABC figures to lose about $50 million.

So why was CBS willing to make such a huge investment?

"This is a big win for CBS, Inc., not just CBS Sports," said Neal Pilson, the president of CBS Sports.

What Pilson meant is the baseball package will benefit the network's entertainment department, providing a vehicle for promoting fall programming.

"In the past, with the World Series on ABC and NBC, we've had to start out way behind and play catchup," he said. "Now we have a tremendous advantage."

CBS, in recent years, has been a distant No. 3 in the ratings race.

The baseball deal, besides raising the possibility that Brent Musburger will be announcing the World Series on television rather than radio, or that John Madden may become a baseball announcer, pumps new blood into a troubled network.

"Our affiliates have been calling all day, telling us how excited they are," Pilson said.

According to sources, the NBC bid was about $750 million. ABC reportedly bid slightly less than NBC.

Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, without going into specifics, said: "All three networks were aggressive and spirited in their bidding. All three submitted fair bids.

"What we liked about the CBS bid was that one network was willing to pay to televise the league championship series. We are happy that we will be able to put both league championship series on free over-the-air television rather than going to cable."

What will end up on cable television is a national package of 4 or 5 games a week. Ueberroth said that the specifics of that package will be announced the first week of January, and bidding on it will take place shortly after that.

Ueberroth said that ESPN, Turner Broadcasting, SportsChannel America and the USA network will bid. The package is expected to go for between $75 and $100 million a season.

Ueberroth also said that the cable package would not necessarily mean an end to superstation telecasts such as those by Chicago's WGN and New York's WWOR.

"We'll let the marketplace determine the future of superstations," Ueberroth said. "If there is a demand for them, they will continue. If there isn't, they won't.

"What we'll now have, though, is more balance. With the superstations, viewers were getting 95% National League telecasts. Our package will spread things around. Teams that have never been on national television will now be getting on."

The CBS money and the money coming from the national cable package will be divided evenly among the 26 major league teams.

What all this means is that baseball is getting richer, a lot richer. It also means that sports rights fees, despite what network executives in general and Pilson in particular keep saying, are escalating.

In 1984, the final year of a 5-year contract, ABC and NBC were paying about $20 million each for baseball. That figure grew to an average of $100 million a season under terms of a 5-year contract that began in 1985 and runs through 1989.

Combined, ABC and NBC agreed to pay a total of $1 billion for 5 years.

Now CBS alone will pay more than $1 billion for 4 years.

Baseball can add to this another $100 million or so from a national cable package, plus money from local over-the-air and cable packages.

The New York Yankees recently sold their TV rights for $550 million over 12 years, or more than $45 million a season.

That deal involves WPIX, the Yankees' flagship station, and the Madison Square Garden cable network. For the next 3 seasons, the two entities will each show 75 games. But beginning in 1991, Yankee games will appear exclusively on the cable network.

Cable television is good for teams, particularly those in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles, because it means more money. But the problem is that cable is not available to everyone.

Where are the Dodgers headed?

"We are in the midst of long-term contracts with KTTV and Z Channel and are not looking at any other options at this time," Dodger President Peter O'Malley said.

One could conclude that since teams in the major markets earn more from local TV packages, they might be able to spend more on free agents, and thus destroy any semblance of parity in baseball.

"I don't think you can conclude that," O'Malley said. "It is true that the Yankees are leading the league in player salaries, but San Diego was able to sign Bruce Hurst, and Texas outbid the Angels for Nolan Ryan."

Nevertheless, the rich figure to get richer as cable possibilities grow.

And what will all this television money do to labor relations between the owners and players' union? Their current contract will expire after the 1989 season, making a strike in 1990 a possibility.

Said Ueberroth: "I think this will help labor relations. I think both parties, owners and players, are benefiting. They now have even more reason to find a common ground and get it done.

"I would think the larger amount of money available would cause them to work harder for a solution. Everyone now has more to lose."

A baseball strike in 1990 would spoil what otherwise should be a banner year for CBS Sports. That year, it has the Super Bowl, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball Final Four, the National Basketball Assn. final series and now the baseball playoffs and the World Series.

About announcing assignments, Pilson said: "We have 18 months to work on that."

Vin Scully, NBC's lead play-by-play announcer, will be available by then. His contract, had the network kept baseball, would have run through 1991. But it now expires after the 1989 season.

Scully, who worked for CBS from 1975 until 1983, when he switched to NBC, is on a cruise and could not be reached for comment.

Musburger, however, would seem to have the inside track as the No. 1 play-by-play announcer. Dick Stockton, a former Boston Red Sox announcer, is a likely No. 2.

As for the commentator's job, Johnny Bench, Musburger's partner on CBS Radio, figures as one possibility. Another might be Joe Garagiola, who recently quit after 27 years at NBC.

Art Watson, the president of NBC Sports, said his network's other regular baseball announcers, Bob Costas and Tony Kubek, would be assigned to other events.

Regarding the $1-billion bid by CBS, Watson said: "That bid was beyond our reach. Everyone evaluates things differently."

Watson said NBC had bid for a package similar to the one it now has--30 Saturday telecasts plus the playoffs and World Series in alternating years.

Watson said that CBS' standing of No. 3 in the ratings had to be a factor in its high bid.

"Maybe they're hungrier," he said. "They're just coming off their worst ratings week."

Watson also said: "We wish baseball and CBS good luck. They're partners for 4 years, then we'll see what happens."

The only word from ABC was in a prepared statement from Dennis Swanson, ABC Sports president. In part, it read:

"We're disappointed to lose our identity with major league baseball, which has been a blue-chip franchise for ABC Sports since 1975. We made what we considered a competitive offer. We congratulate CBS on its acquisition."

ABC's Al Michaels, a baseball announcer since joining the Cincinnati Reds in 1972, was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached.

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