Scrambling Scrap : Football Obsession Makes La Jollan a Natural to Take on NFL, Networks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consider this: Norman Lebovitz, a stumpy La Jollan who made his mark in life selling hot dogs, is invited to New York City to talk about this "scrambling" problem with CBS and NBC.

Call it "Mr. Sluggo's Goes to Manhattan," or maybe David versus Goliath.

The networks wanted to scramble National Football League games starting Sunday. They sought to limit NFL watchers to those in the stands or to those who tune in only through network affiliates.

Scrambling would cut out anyone watching on home or commercial satellite systems, which don't pick up local affiliates and thus fail to receive local commercials.

But what the powers failed to realize was Norman Lebovitz, and millions like him, don't much care for the "hometown" team. Lebovitz's team is the Chicago Bears--not the San Diego Chargers--even though he lives in La Jolla and has for five years.

Sorry, he says, but America has changed. It is now a nation of nomads, and nowhere is that more evident than San Diego.

So, he formed a grass-roots consumer effort called the Assn. for Sports Fans' Rights. He installed a toll-free number in his Sluggo's outlets in La Jolla and Hillcrest, and the phone lit up. He declared a national boycott of Anheuser-Busch Inc., the NFL's biggest sponsor.

A meeting was arranged in New York between Lebovitz ("just the average fan") and executives of two major networks. Lebovitz made a point not to wear a coat or a tie.

"But I never do," he said. "Why do you have to, if you're your own boss?"

Before the end of the meeting, Lebovitz was assured privately, as were officials for the breweries, that scrambling will not take place before the 1991 season. He can still watch his Bears via satellite. He doesn't have to return to Chicago, and would have, he said, "If somehow, I can't whip this thing."

A truce reached, he called off the boycott.

It would seem that David had whipped Goliath, but Lebovitz was not entirely happy with Sunday's telecasts, which he said were "closely monitored" nationwide, on the NFL's opening day.

"Westar 5 (a satellite used by CBS) was totally scrambled (Sunday morning)," he said. "We were able to pick up all of the games on other satellites, such as Telstar 1 and Telstar 2, but CBS went out of its way to make things difficult.

"At this point, they're playing a game with us. And I don't understand why . . . . But after talking to people around the country (Sunday), we've decided to guard ourselves against the lie. If CBS reneges on its word, we'll declare a total boycott of Busch, Miller and NFL Properties, then ask every sports fan in the country to turn off CBS. We'll go for the jugular."

Lebovitz called last week's meeting

with NBC cordial and open; his meeting with CBS, just the opposite, although both networks gave him what he wanted--a promise for a freeze on scrambling in 1990.

He said the CBS executive, knowing that he loved the Bears, offered him an expensive, full-color book about the history of the franchise, which he rejected.

"I don't take bribes," Lebovitz said. "Especially cheap ones."

Who is Norman Lebovitz and what got him so mad?

He's a 52-year-old native of Chicago's north side who moved to La Jolla in 1985 because he was, in his wife's words, "burned out" and saw an "incredible business opportunity."

He bought Sluggo's and made it a kind of Chicago West. In both outlets (he has a third at University Towne Centre), the walls are covered with Chicago memorabilia, most of it having to do with Bears, Cubs, Hawks or Bulls. And on the roof is the satellite dish, beaming in any Chicago event it can find. If one isn't available, Lebovitz said, he plays a tape--on which the Windy City team always win.

"When he gets an idea in his head, he will follow through until the bitter end," said Richard Fuller, a fellow Chicagoan, who met Lebovitz after he moved here 5 1/2 years ago. "He tries to do the right thing, but he's a very tough guy. When he thinks he's right, somehow, he'll get the job done. He'll go the whole nine yards and then some. I wouldn't want him mad at me."

Fuller was asked if his friend has a dark side.

"He's overweight," he said with a laugh. "And, he's a tough businessman. He has a temper, he's human. He's not faultless."

Lebovitz said his views of the world were formed in part on the day he came home from school and found his mother writhing on the kitchen floor. He said it was around 1943, and he was in the first grade. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Czechoslovakia, had moved to the United States before he was born.

"We lived in a one-bedroom apartment above the boiler on Division Street in Chicago," he said. "My mother was rolling all over the place, screaming, crying. She was so hysterical she couldn't talk. Clutched in her hand was a telegram from the Red Cross.

"I couldn't read then, but my aunt lived nearby, so I grabbed the telegram and ran down the street. It was the Red Cross notifying my mother that her mother, her father, her brothers and sisters--her entire family and most of my extended family--had been gassed by the Nazis at Buchenwald."

Lebovitz sighed and said, "My daughter lived in Germany for two years, and I refused to visit her. I feel it would betray my parents for me to ever go to Germany."

To this day, Lebovitz said, "I can't be pushed, I can't be pressured, and don't get me mad--there are no limits to what I can do if I'm (angry)."

Rather than shy from conflict, he says a part of him loves it, thrives on it. His friend Fuller says he's an emotional version of Dick Butkus, the great Bear linebacker who earned his team the nickname "Monsters of the Midway."

"He's an up-front, no b.s., no-nonsense kind of guy," Fuller said. "But good, solid people, through and through."

Lebovitz said he once won a lawsuit against a Chicago company that tried to assess a rental fee during a price freeze.

"I saw it as a cheap tactic and won," he said.

He won another suit against a company that attempted to tear down one of his hot dog stands for a project it was building. And, he spent $40,000 in legal fees to win a La Jolla suit involving an air conditioner, in a dispute over a matter that was worth thousands less.

"I was right," he said. "It was the principle of the thing."

And so, it was the principle of the thing that led him to battle Goliath in the form of the NFL and the networks. Lebovitz said his most lasting memory of last week's New York experience was how fearful network executives are of the NFL.

"It saddened me," he said. "If my customer comes in here and spends his good, hard-earned money, and he's scared of me, then something ain't right," Lebovitz said. "I should be scared of him , because he represents my livelihood. The power the NFL has is ridiculous. It's like they've made themselves bigger than the thing they're promoting."

Even so, Lebovitz loves professional football with a passion that is obsessive. Friend Fuller says: "He's a fanatic, absolutely crazy." Fuller said Lebovitz has a "healthy disrespect for authority" and an "unbridled love for the truth and the Chicago Bears."

His wife, Sheila, to whom he's been married for 29 years, and with whom he shares three daughters and one grand-daughter, said that he was late to their wedding because he and his buddies hadn't gotten back from a Bears game at Wrigley Field.

"In his heart," she said, "I'm not sure I come before the Bears or the Cubs or after both."

She says Lebovitz developed an interest in sports as an outgrowth of the only social life he knew--talking about baseball or football while greeting the public at work. She said Lebovitz's father was a "total illiterate," whose son went to work for him at age 6 so his dad "could make change."

At 13, Lebovitz took his Bar Mitzvah money and opened his own hot-dog stand (Sammy's Red Hots, named after a cousin, who lost an arm in World War II), his wife said. The teen-aged provider kept putting food on the table, and, his wife said, "hasn't stopped providing for people ever since. He takes care of a lot of people. His Bar Mitzvah was more than just symbolic--the boy did become a man, overnight."

Lebovitz does not have a "formal education," she added, "but is very smart and has terrific business sense. He's extremely good at what he does, and he's very caring. He often covers up for it with a gruff bravado, but he cares very deeply."

Sammy's (and later additional franchises called Lemmy's) evolved into a chain of 34 that was sold for a tidy profit. He then retired "for a few months," and, based on a restless impulse, started his own pickle firm. He merged it with the Vienna Beef Co., which appointed him a top executive. He said he came to La Jolla to "trouble-shoot" for a problem client and ended up buying the man's business.

"I called my wife and said, 'I'm not coming home,' " he said. "It was the first time I'd ever done anything like that. She said, 'You've got to come home, you've only got clothes for five days.' "

He stayed. Two and a half years later, his wife joined him--reluctantly.

She said the casualness of Southern California appeals to her husband, "who is basically withdrawn." An outgoing woman with a fine arts degree from a Chicago institution, she decorated the bright interiors of each Sluggo's.

"The biggest thing I find is that people out here are so apathetic," she said. "They're so self-conscious that, at times, they don't seem to care about anything but themselves. I can't have a good political argument with anybody, because nobody cares enough or knows enough to get into one. And it's sad to me that people can live in a place for a lengthy time and never really know anybody. That's so foreign to me, coming from the Midwest, where just about everybody says, 'Hello, how are you?'

"But Normie loves it here. Out here, he's Mr. Chicago, and he loves that. He fell in love with what he called his intriguing San Diego adventure. This was hot dog heaven--virgin territory--and he conquered it."

Since the Lebovitzes first met 39 years ago, the husband's work has always involved hot dogs. His wife says they lived next door to each other as "the best of friends" throughout adolescence. "One thing led to another," and they were married.

"In high school, he would go to school from 8 a.m. to noon, then go to work," she said. "He once worked 1,000 straight days--I kid you not. On the night of our senior prom, he had to work. I never felt so sorry for him as I did that night."

Lebovitz said the most his father ever made was $55 a week, sandpapering picture frames, so the son carried the burden.

"Whenever times got tough, and there were plenty of those, I couldn't just stand around," he said. "I didn't have no rich uncle to bail me out. I had to keep moving forward . . . or die."

Lebovitz is convinced that he would not have been successful in any other country but this one. "That's why I drive an Oldsmobile and not a Toyota," he said. Early in the NFL controversy, he was quoted as saying, "I have a nephew on his way to Saudi Arabia to defend the networks' right to rob me of my livelihood."

He agrees his drive to succeed, as well as his love for sports, borders on the maniacal, if not the bizarre. To unwind, he "visits the psychiatrist" once a week, the shrink being a golf course.

He says he can't conceive of a life without sports, and as a result, the Assn. for Sports Fans' Rights, along with its toll-free number, will continue. He's hoping to take his fight to "the halls of Congress," where he says the NFL is vulnerable, especially on antitrust. He talks of organizing fans into a union, "except this union has the money-- we pay the bills."

About his energy, which one network executive labeled "amazing--absolutely amazing," Lebovitz said, "What can I say? I'm crazy . . . . There's no other way to explain it."

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