Thirty years ago this week, Home Team Sports made its debut, bringing live local sports coverage to 160,000 local cable subscribers. To commemorate that anniversary, Comcast SportsNet — HTS’s successor — will air a 30th anniversary special April 3 at 6 and 10 p.m., with encore showings the following day.
The show — Comcast SportsNet Celebrates 30 Years — will include a panel discussion on the network’s history, moderated by Al Koken and featuring Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin, Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier, who all have been with the network for more than half its existence. There will be interviews with several of the network’s longest-serving news anchors, including Chick Hernandez, Jill Sorenson, Michael Jenkins and Brent Harris. There will be another panel with several longtime production directors and staffers. There will be taped interviews with Mel Proctor and Larry King — former contributors — and ancient clips with truly incredible moments, some of which are seen above.
Seriously, if you’ve cared about Washington sports for your whole life, you will treasure this archival footage, because it’s insane. Herewith, 10 truly noteworthy nuggets about the first week of Home Team Sports.
1. The network went on the air shortly before 2 on April 4, 1984, with plans to broadcast the second Orioles game of the season — the O’s were coming off their World Series championship — and the Caps’ playoff opener against the Philadelphia Flyers. Not a bad way to launch a network. Problem was, the Orioles were rained out. So Mel Proctor and color man Rex Barney did their scheduled MLB preview show, then killed time for hours at Memorial Stadium, doing dugout interviews and making small-talk. The network also aired highlights of the previous night’s Bullets win over Indiana, which clinched Washington’s 14th playoff spot in 16 years, and of the 1983 Orioles playoffs.
2. Before the network threw things to Baltimore, though, there was an introduction from founding general manager Bill Aber. It might as well have been delivered from 16th century Florence, or from Jupiter.
“This network is the newest special feature available to you as a cable subscriber,” Aber said. “We are proud to join the vast array of unique programming services you now have, because you decided to invest in the most dynamic home entertainment service ever: cable television. Never in history has an individual had so many choices, and so much control, over his and the family’s entertainment and information needs.”
3. After the Orioles “broadcast,” there was a launch party at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, hosted by Proctor and Larry King. Yes, that Larry King. Guests interviewed at the party included Orioles GM Hank Peters, plus Al Bumbry, Ray Miller and Elrod Hendricks, and soccer pioneer Gordon Bradley. Then, King was rapidly escorted to Landover, where he served as the third man in the booth for the Caps broadcast, along with Mike Fornes and Gordie Howe.
4. Yes, Gordie Howe. See, his son, Mark Howe, was on the Flyers, and Gordie was interested in broadcasting the series. Turns out it was a 3-0 Caps sweep, the first playoff win in franchise history. And with both the Flyers and his son eliminated, Howe wasn’t interested in broadcasting a Caps-Islanders series, so he bowed out. The broadcast crew for that series was thus Fornes and Sal Messina.
5. As for that first Caps broadcast, the first goal from the broadcast is seen above. It was scored by, you guessed it, Craig Laughlin. The man who devoted much of his adult life to broadcasting Caps games on HTS/CSN scored the first Caps goal that the network ever broadcast.
6. And after the Caps broadcast, HTS went to a delayed broadcast of the Bullets-Hawks game in Atlanta, with Mike Patrick on the play-by-play and Wes Unseld doing color. The Bullets lost. A subsequent HTS newsletter noted how officials were looking forward to this area’s first-ever sports triple-header, but “instead, Home Team Sports’ teams won one, lost one, and one got rained out.”
7. There were 12 local cable systems involved for the network’s launch. Among the original affiliates? Annapolis CATV, Cable Communications Corp. of Sterling, Cablevision of Manassas Park, CALTEC Cablevision from Baltimore County, ChascoVision of Waldorf, Frederick Cablevision, Media General from Fairfax County, North Arundel Cable TV, Prestige Cable in Dale City and Spotsylvania County and Stafford County, Simmons Cable TV of Leonardtown and D.C.’s “The Capitol Connection.”
8. The reel above also features King interviewing Abe Pollin, one of the men who helped get the network off the ground.
“What a night for you, the playoffs, cable television: are you reflecting a lot, you thinking back?” King asked.
“Yeah Larry, it’s really a great night,” Pollin responded. “And we’re honored to be the first event ever on Home Team Sports, because I feel that this is going to be a tremendously successful venture. And we’re in it all the way, and we’re really proud to be the first thing on it.”
9. Not everyone was so bullish, though. The Post covered the network’s launch two days before the scheduled Orioles/Caps/Bullets tripleheader. The story noted that there were 14 other regional sports networks — five launching that month — and that most industry observers saw “an inevitable shift of major regional and possibly national sports events from free over-the-air television to some kind of pay TV system.” Teams needed additional sources of revenue, and all that. But would it work?
“I think people have serious reservations about [HTS] now,” one anonymous industry official said in the story.
“I predict they will fail,” said another, described as “a well-known Washington-based cable executive.”
That quote hung in the HTS offices for many years.
10. As noted above, just 160,000 subscribers had access to Home Team Sports when it launched. And now? Comcast SportsNet reaches an audience of nearly 5 million homes.