February 18, 2014

TV and sports: the big sell-out

In the TV Guide from two or three weeks ago, I mentioned an article by Stanley Frank on how television has corrupted sports, and how this deserved a space of its own.  In prose that could well have been ripped from today's headlines (I should get today's award for best use of a cliche), Frank denounces the "Money-grabbing promoters [who] are collaborating with TV in debasing college and pro football, basketball, bowling and hockey.  The major networks have been guilty of phony buildups in boxing and golf to pull bigger audiences."  In short, says Frank, "With the sole exception of the Olympic Games, TV has corrupted every sport it has touched."*

*Frank wins the award for most ironic comment with that mention of the Olympics, but remember this is 1967 we're talking about.  The Olympics, as my friend Marc Ryan mentioned, has yet to figure out how valuable the television dollar can be.  

There are two things that really strike me here.  First, it's always interesting to see how willing TV Guide is to publish a piece by one of its own writers attacking the very industry the magazine covers.  Interesting but, perhaps, not surprising - we've noted before that TV Guide was a much more substantive publication back in the day.

Second, and perhaps even more intriguing, is how used we've become to the control television exercises over sports.  For in lamenting the effect TV has had on everything from TV timeouts to start times for football games to rest days in the World Series, Frank expresses disgust over things we nowadays take for granted.  And it’s that aspect that most demonstrates the difference between then and now.

For example, Frank references a pair of football games played during the 1966 season.  One, an November NFL game between the Vikings and Packers in Minnesota, was moved from its original 1:00pm CT start to 3:00pm in order to be part of a CBS doubleheader, while a Penn State-Syracuse college football game finished in near darkness, in a stadium lacking lights, simply because ABC wanted a later starting time.  Frank's point here is that these decisions, when made due to "requests" from the networks, can materially affect not just the game itself, but the spectators who've paid good money to attend - fans in Minnesota, for instance, who'd bought tickets to a late November game they thought would begin at 1pm now have to shiver through a game that won't end until around 6pm*, while those in State College, PA could barely make out the end of their team's 12-10 loss to Syracuse due to the darkness.  Why were leagues and teams willing to play ball with the networks?  As Asa Bushnell, executive director of the NCAA television committee, puts it, "I suppose they were afraid of losing the TV fee."

Professional leagues are constantly expanding, adding new teams in areas not previously known for being sporting hotbeds (two NHL teams in California, for instance), often when there don’t seem to be enough competent players around to field the number of teams they already have.  Why?  TV money.  Bowl games have expanded from the “Big Four” (Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange) to as many as 20 in 1966.  Why?  TV money.   The PGA Championship switches from match play, where two unknowns could go head-to-head in a final match that might only last 14 or 15 holes, to stroke play, which guarantees at least 18 holes  on Sunday and allows the sport’s biggest names to recover from a bad round.  Why?  TV money.

And what about that big money that prompted Syracuse and Penn State to change their start time?  To put it in context, the Big Ten took in $900,000 in television fees for all of 1966.  Last year, the league’s various television contracts (including the money from their own network) totaled $308 million.  Whereas in the 60s the conference might have had 16 to 18 games telecast per season, now virtually every conference game is aired.  And as Perry Mason would say, “I rest my case.”  (Of course, we've talked about this before.)

The reason I find this so interesting, enough so that I’d devote an entire piece to it, is to demonstrate how much times have changed – how used to it all we are now.  We accept the television timeouts in football – as a matter of fact, the Super Bowl is television’s biggest show in large part because people who aren't that interested in football actually tune in to watch the commercials.*  Those people would likely laugh at Frank’s concern over the “contrived” television timeout.  We may not like the delay (although it’s certainly more palatable for the television viewer than it is the fan in the stands who has to sit through them, or the player who has to wait for next play to be run, or the team concerned about losing momentum at precisely the time when it needs it most), but we’ve gotten accustomed to them.  Not unlike the frog in the boiling pot, I suppose.

*Which, in fairness, are often more interesting than the game itself.

Regarding the altered start time of games, would that it was as quaint as Frank’s complaint.  Not only are we used to them, we fairly demand them.  It matters little that a Monday night game might not start until after 9pm, or that a Thursday night game demands that a team play on only three days’ rest, or that a baseball game on the West Coast begins while the sun is still shining in the batter’s eyes.  What matters is the convenience of the television viewer – and if the viewers desire an NFL doubleheader every Sunday, then who cares if it means the kickoff might not be until 4:30?  Hell, with the league’s flexible scheduling policy, you could have a noon game moved to 8pm on very short notice.

And as far as television’s effect on the games themselves?  It’s true that the TV timeout can be a momentum-killer, although in the NBA, for example, a struggling team might wait to call a timeout of their own in hopes that the TV timeout will halt their opponent’s Big Mo.  But I doubt that most sports fans today would appreciate the more subtle aspects of Frank’s argument that the so-called “travel day” in the World Series has unalterably changed the “fundamental character” of the game.  His point is that great players from Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson to Ted Williams and Stan Musial rarely played in the World Series because their teams “lacked depth” at key positions, especially starting pitching.  Championship teams needed four good starting pictures, on the assumption that the Series could run for seven consecutive days, with no day off between games.  Add the travel days following the second and fifth games, and now a team can win with only three good starters – or even two, as the Tigers would prove in 1968.  While the travel day may have been necessary in the days before jet travel, certainly by 1967 that need has disappeared.

*Who knows what Frank would have thought if you’d pointed out that today’s teams travel on luxurious charters, and employ five-man rotations?

The point I’m making here is that Frank likely spoke for many fans in his 1967 article, and yet today he could well be speaking in a foreign tongue.  I doubt that even television executives could have foreseen back then the extent to which television would be a player at the sporting table – if, in fact, they don’t already own that table.  NBC vice president Carl Lindemann had it right when he told Frank that TV’s influence would continue – after all, it was NBC’s money that essentially allowed the American Football League to go toe-to-toe with the NFL until the two leagues merged.  As the leagues required more money, they’d turn to the networks.  As the networks needed more advertising revenue to cover costs, they’d charge the sponsors more.  As that amount maxed out, more commercials would be required in order to make up the difference.  And to justify it all, the networks would need to receive concessions from the leagues, whether it be through more teams, more playoff games, more games, more control.  More, more, more.

It didn’t have to turn out that way, of course, although once it started on the path the ending was probably inevitable.  But once money talks, it’s hard to shut it up.  When you get a taste of it, you want more.

Stanley Frank is frankly disgusted with television’s influence over sports.  But could Frank possibly have foreseen how much farther it could go?  Television networks influencing college conference realignment, creating conference-specific networks, owning bowl games, dictating the terms of how American sports operates.  Perhaps this would have come as a real shock to him – or maybe he could see it coming all along, he knew where the path would eventually lead, and that’s why those first few steps bothered him so much.

1 comment:

  1. You hit it right on the head, Mitchell.
    Taking your (and his) Penn State-Syracuse example, a step further: what would Frank think of Major League Baseball routinely switching a Sunday afternoon game to prime time (which, realistically, means an 8:30 start) or, the NFL scheduling a wild-card game in January, in the east, to start after dark.
    Good news: your team is in the playoffs. Bad news: you season ticket holders should plan on driving home in a midnight snowstorm. Your consolation is knowing America will be watching along with you as you shiver.
    Also, I like your observation that TV publishes an article criticizing television in a way it would not today.

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