Forget not being able to tell the players without a scorecard. Now you can't tell the teams without a TV Guide.
Frequently live on cable, from New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia, it's basketball or hockey or football or baseball. Or all of the above.
The proprietors of this billion-dollar addition to the gross national product are tripping over each other to be next in your living room.
For instance, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) in September began televising sports, 80 percent of it taped, 24 hours a day. Amateur or professional, from fencing to wrestling, if you want it, ESPN probably has it.Any sport, any time.
Ted Turner, the Atlanta millionaire who owns the nation's most successful "superstation," WTBS-Channel 17, as well as the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks, decided that baseball fans from Maine to California would like to see each of the Braves' 162 games in 1981.
Even the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network, based in Washington, is expanding its sports coverage. In a possible programming first, BET President Bob Johnson said he hopes to broadcast the 1981 tennis championships of the black college Southwestern Athletic Conference.
"Black college sports is a major part of our programming," said Johnson, who heads a group that has applied for a cable franchise in the District of Columbia, "because to produce other types of programming is more expensive."
But Johnson, with his football and basketball packages of nine games each, represents a particle of what's available in cable sports. So does the limited sports fare offered by Home Box Office (HBO). They are dwarfed by ESPN and the USA Network, which is to live telecasts what ESPN is to tape.
With no more effort than bending a finger, a fan with cable can have his viewing appetite sated. The local menu is stingy, though, because the only cable in the vast majority of Washington-area homes is the one laid by the telephone company.
The reasons vary. If you live in the District, and you like your motorcycle racing at 3 a.m., you're in trouble, because the City Council has priorities sports nuts might not recognize: legislation that deals with housing, health care, taxes and other issues.
The law states that cable franchises must be selected by the local governing body. In Washington, there has been a bill every year since 1971 to start the cable selection process, but each has died.
"There are human needs that come ahead," said Councilwoman Wilhemina Rolark (D-8th), who is looking into the writing of a new cable ordinance.
Also, constructing cable systems in large cities hadn't been financially viable, because the costs of laying hundreds of miles of wire, and the costs for building earth stations are exorbitant (in Washington, the estimated cost is $60 million to $100 million). Only in the last few years, with the popularity of pay television as typified by HBO, has cable proven to be a moneymaker.
"It's a recent phenomenon in cities," said David Korte of the Cable Television Information Center. "There haven't been enough products that offered good enough packages."
"The problem in the District is the franchise process," said Jim Cavazzini of ESPN, which is on 1,300 systems reaching 7 million homes. It's the largest cable-only network, and a fan's dream. ESPN has been known to show as many as six college football and basketball games per weekend, all on tape, since the National Collegiate Athletic Association prohibits any network other than the one with which it has a contract from showing any live games.
Bored with football? Overdosed on fast breaks? Try slow-pitch softball, hurling, rugby, contact karate, volleyball and every conceivable college championship. For relief, there's five daily doses of SportsCenter, with the latest news and views.
"D.C. hasn't even gotten out the requirements for bids yet," Cavazzini said. "They're really slow getting off the mark. Most of the other major cities have begun the process. Even when the franchising goes smoothly, it takes two years at best. Washington is a big market, and we're pretty frustrated."
As is most of the citizenry, with its diet of Bullets and Caps games. That gap could be filled by USA Network, a subsidiary of Madison Square Garden, which offers subscribers more than 300 prime-time events, including Thursday night baseball, Monday night hockey and all New York Ranger home games.But you have to live on the right side of the tracks, as in Arlington, to be hooked up to it.
In the suburbs, as in Fairfax County, the complexity of cable has caused the Board of Supervisors to approach the issue on tiptoes. Questions have been asked and hearings held over the last two years to ensure that the chosen franchise operators -- 22 companies are interested in one or two franchise areas -- know what they are doing and are prepared to meet community needs.
Naturally, when there's big money, there's politics. In other cities, the awarding of franchises has been accompanied by conflict-of-interest problems and other questionable dealings. Heavy lobbying goes on and on.
Prince George's County, which has yet to grant countywide franchises, experienced a nasty battle among county officials over the awarding of independent franchises to a company headed by an ex-county executive.
Montgomery County also has experienced delays.With revenues that could exceed $15 million per year to the fortunate franchise operator, no one is rushing things.
"It takes a tremendous amount of time to get cable," said Lenny Klompus of Metro Communications in Bethesda. Klompus' firm, which specializes in selling games to cable franchises, has rights to Maryland, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Southern California football as well as 80 college basketball games.
"They want to make sure they know what they're getting," he said. "Some cities got really burned, and they're being very careful. I applaud them, but it's running kind of slowly. I want to tell them, 'Let's go, boys,' but I'm glad they're doing it this way."
They've already done it in Arlington, the first area community to be awarded a franchise, in 1973. But as one of the cable pioneers, Arlington has problems brought about by its cable company contract, which contains loopholes and has failed to foresee advances in cable technology.
Sometimes the process can move quickly, once minds are made up. In Prince George's County, 14 communities gave the go-ahead for cable, not waiting for the county to take action. The first system, in Hyattsville, is in operation.
There also are plans for a non-cable subscription television station, Channel 50, to go on the air next summer.The station's management hopes to televise home Bullet, Capital and Oriole games eventually.
Hardly anyone can say precisely when the District, Fairfax, and other uncabled areas will be wired and operational, although most experts believe many cable services will be available in the metropolitan area by about 1985. Certainly, the subject is now, more than ever, on the minds of the politicians and potential viewers.
"Generally, the franchising process has been going unbelievably well," ESPN's Cavazzini said. "But it all comes to bear on the politicians. If the outcry from the citizens is strong, they move. Otherwise, they don't. i
Echoing the optimistic predictions of many industry experts, Cavazzini predicted that cable television, if it can overcome the delays in the franchising process, will triple its penetration levels by the end of the current decade.