The Federal Communications Commission is considering an inquiry into the "Heavyweight Championship of Tennis" series, televised nationally by CBS and largely funded by the network, The Washington Post has learned.
It recently has been disclosed that the purses in these "challenge matches" were divided between the participants beforehand and were not "winner take all" as advertised.
"The commission has a real interest in this thing. I personally think we ought to get into it," one FCC commissioner told The Washington Post.
"I've played tennis for more than 20 years; I watch it on TV, as do a number of the other commissioners," he said. "I was duped along with everybody else watching these things and I'm kind of incensed. But before we can really investigate it, we've got to have some evidence that CBS knew what was going on."
How much CBS executives knew about the financial arrangements for the matches on April 26, 1975 (Jimmy Connors vs. John Newcombe), Feb. 28, 1976 (Connors vs. Manuel Orantes), and March 6, 1977 (Connors vs. Ilie Nastase), is unclear.
All the three matches were billed as having a $250,000 "winner-take-all" purse, but in fact revenues were divided by prearrangement. As in a boxing title fight, both participants were guaranteed fees regardless of the outcome.
Caesars Place, site of the Connors-Newcombe and Connors-Orantes matches, put up $300,000 "front money" for each. CBS paid $650,000 for the U.S. television rights to these matches, and $555,000 for the Connors-Nastase match.
Robert Wussler, vice president for sports at CBS at the time of the Newcombe and Orantes matches and now president of the network, was asked if he or anyone else at CBS had prior knowledge of the true financial arrangements. "I don't wish to comment on that at this time," he said.
Bill Riordan of Salisbury, Md., who promoted the matches, said he never told Wussler of his financial arrangements with hte participants. But Riordan told The Washington Post on May 8 that he had a meeting with the people from Caesars Palace and CBS: "I was the one who had to come up with a rationale. I said that Caesars Palace should give $250,000 to the winner, and the guarantees of the other receipts. If anybody asked the players should be made up from us what the split was, we'd tell them it was none of their business."
But last weekend Riordan said he had reviewed events carefully in his mind and that there were some inadvertent errors in his account of May 8.
"I kind of went over the whole thing after I talked last week, and Bob Wussler, when he was head of sports, did not know about the financial arrangements," Riordan said.
Riordan said the meeting was with "CBS and the PR (public relations) people," with Caesars Place not represented.
"The only thing Wussler said to me was, before the Newcombe match, 'Keep the prize money to $250,000. Anything over that is kind of immoral. It will turn the public off. You structure the thing watever way you want, but I think the prize money should be no higher than $250,000."
"I remember there was some discussion on that point because I wasn't sure I agreed with him. But the tenor of everybody at the meeting was that it would turn people off to think that a tennis player was going to make a half a million dollars or something like that. Because obviously they (CBS) knew what they were paying in rights money.
" . . . I told Wussler that it was an easy thing to work out," Riordan said. "I would take $250,000 of Caesars Palace's money and put it up as prize money, and then the rest would be broken down."
Wussler said that while the financial arrangements between promoter and players are not the concern of the network when it buys broadcast rights to an event, he did not think CBS had lived up to its journalistic responsibility to accurately report purse arrangements.
Wussler said that CBS is conducting its own internal study of the matter. "I wouldn't exactly say that we suffered a black eye," he asid, "But I find this whole incident distrubing. We looked into it all last week and are continuing to look into it."
CBS commentators at the Connors-Nastase match referred to the "winer-take-all" format serval times in the first 10 minutes of the telecast, then dropped all reference to the purse.
Reportedly Barry Frank, currently CBS vice president for sports, called the TV production truck on location in Puerto Rico and ordered the "winer-take-all" references halted. But no retractions of the earlier misinformation were made on the air.
Riordan has assumed the blame for misinforming CBS commentor Pat Summerall, who did the play-by-play of the Connors-Nastase match, U.S. Davis Cup captain Tony Trabert was the "color" commentator.
Frank, one of the promoters of the first "Heavyweight championship of Tennis" match between Connors and Rod Laver on Feb. 2, 1975, had been unavailable for comment.
"I haven't talked to anybody at CBS except Barry Frank, who I ran into at the Kentucky Derby," Riordan said.
Riordan said that Frank is suing him for 50 per cent of the promoter's fee from the Connors-Laver match and that the case still is in litigation in New York Riordan said CBS paid only $60,000 for the rights to that match under a deal negotiated with Frank, then an executive with Trans World International, a broadcast and film subsidiary of Mark McCormack's Cleveland-based International Management group.
The Connors-Laver match was structured so that the winner received $100,000 and the loser $60,000, according to Riordan. He said Frank knew all the financial arrangements for the Laver and Newcombe matches, and probably knew the terms of the Orantes and Nastase matches.