If home entertainment costs more than you thought in the years ahead, you may have to bite the Bullets.
The Orioles and Capitals, too. Might be a significant savings.
Soon, telecasts of the home games of the Bullets, Capitals and the Baltimore Orioles probably will cost you money, as Washington moves toward becoming the latest in a growing number of major-sports cities in the country with its own regional pay-cable sports network.
Even here in cable-free D.C., there are a lot of people who say it's inevitable, this potential partnership between Bullets and Capitals owner Abe Pollin, Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams and a yet-to-be-determined cable or pay franchise. (One of the more likely set-to-set salesmen at the moment is Super TV, the Washington-Baltimore over-the-air subscription television service that last fall seasoned its film fare with 16 Orioles home games. But Super TV probably would have to add a signal especially for sports programming.)
If a Washington sports channel is inevitable, there are several reasons why. The Washington-Baltimore region is on the verge of being cabled up to its neck. Pro sports teams, especially those in the NBA, are sinking under player salaries, and are looking with varying degrees of desperation for fat income supplements.
Also, cable and pay-TV delivery is increasingly more precise and cash-ready because it sells sporting events only to those who want them (unlike commercial television, which sends everything out to everyone and depends on ratings to set advertising prices and program schedules).
Pay networks have been banding together NHL, NBA and major league baseball teams in virtually every major market in the last two years, flourishing in some established markets such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Seattle. In Washington, after resting cautiously in the back of many local sports-business minds for some time, the notion of a regional sports pay-TV network is now taking on the proportions of a proposal.
"It's still a little amorphous at the moment," says Jerry Sachs, president of Capital Centre, home of the Bullets and Capitals, who with the Orioles asked for and earlier this month received a feasibility study of the regional network venture. "The summary (of the study) is that a regional cable sports package is something that could be positive. We're not clear what the final form will take."
Sachs says we conceivably could see results--a full schedule of home games, for which you buy a "season ticket" that electronically entitles your box to a seat -- as early as the Bullets' and Capitals' 1983-84 seasons. Orioles television rights negotiator Lawrence Lucchino, a law partner of owner Williams, says it's "not likely" the Orioles' 1983 season will make it to a regional sports channel.
Just in case, however, the Orioles signed a two-year contract with Baltimore's WMAR-TV-2 this year to televise road games only--none of the six or seven home games WMAR covered (and Washington's WDCA-TV-20 picked up) last season. If there is no regional network by next season, Lucchino says, look for another 15 to 20 home games on Super TV again.
Also keep in mind that Chicago White Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn and Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles -- both of whom hold substantial interests in regional sports networks that already are operating--are now serving on the television rights committee for the major leagues, whose contracts with ABC and NBC expire after next season.
This is what Einhorn told Howard Cosell several Sundays ago: "We here in Chicago, the professional sports teams, spell our Sports Vision operation 'survival.' That's really what it represents to us, because virtually we have all exhausted our traditional forms of revenue--meaning gate and the ancillary income from promotions, from commercial radio and television programs, etc. We still lose money.
"Even if we sold out, even if we drew the most we've ever drawn," Einhorn said, "it's still a losing proposition."
Sachs and the others in Washington still have questions. How would a sports channel affect the live gate? Although Philadelphia's pay-TV Prism operation has increased fan interest overall, as it claims, how do we know this isn't because the teams -- the 76ers, Flyers and Phillies -- have done so well in the same period? Won't Pollin and Williams eventually lose in radio and commercial TV rights what they gain on the pay network?
"We're dealing in the unknown," says Sachs.
"If I knew that, I'd be the greatest soothsayer in baseball," says Lucchino. "But I can tell you: anyone involved with a professional sports organization who hasn't looked into a sports cable channel is being derelict . . ."
We'll see. We might even pay, too.