It was billed as a seminar on "The Future of Television Sports" by the Museum of Broadcasting in New York. And though the panelists, the men who head the sports division at ABC, NBC, CBS and ESPN, talked a lot about the present and past, futurists needed only take note of the standard dark-blue business suits worn by each man, and then read between the lines.
As in bottom lines.
The future of TV sports is as bland, and as deceptively mighty, as the four men who sat on that panel this week: it is business, plain and simple.
And a business in which big deals are not such a big deal anymore, but just "starting points" for the next one.
In recent years, as leagues became "packages" and college athletic directors "promoters," sports programming has become among the networks' most reliable revenue sources. To keep things that way, TV sports divisions have fallen into the steady, studied hands of sales managers, negotiators, planners and administrators.
Sports President Neal Pilson of CBS is an attorney and former program-rights negotiator. Arthur Watson, president of NBC Sports, spent 20 years managing NBC's TV and radio stations. Bill Grimes of ESPN spent 13 years in sales, management, planning and personnel at CBS. ABC's Jim Spence, the senior vice president who runs Roone Arledge's sports division, is the only one of the four with a background in production, but he looks just as comfortable in a blue suit as any of them.
"Sports is an area where if you're prepared to invest your money, you know you will get a quality product, and a product that rates well," said Pilson at one point. "That's not true in entertainment, where you can invest your money in "Silver Streak" and it doesn't always work out. You invest your money in the World Series and you know you're going to get a quality product."
Pilson was alluding to probably the most symbolic bit of Sports Television Future discussed by the men in blue: the new major league baseball contract negotiated by ABC and NBC, a $1.2 billion, six-year pact that starts after this season and seems to have something in it for everyone. Except possibly CBS, which turned baseball down, on economic grounds, of course, being as it is the No. 1-rated network at the moment.
ABC and NBC figured it differently. For a reported $550 million, NBC can look forward to bolstering its last-place position with three World Series, three All-Star games and three league championship series (LCS), all proven boons to advertising revenue, promotion and overall image-building. ABC will pay a reported $575 million for a similar menu.
"We always know that once we'd achieved the changes in our contract that we wanted, particularly exclusivity on Saturday afternoon plus the potential of expansion of the LCS (to best of seven instead of five)," Watson said, "that it was a good business deal for NBC.
"From my point of view, they (baseball) knew exactly what they wanted. Today, promoters are very sophisticated, they know what we sell, and at what prices. They know what the package is worth, they recognize that it's a partnership, and they want their fair share," Watson said. "If someone sat down and figured out what the last World Series was worth on NBC, it was very considerable, well above what we currently had paid for it. So they knew that their package . . . that their product had increased in value, tremendously."
You better believe those figures on last year's World Series were compiled by baseball, or more specifically, by former television sports executive Eddie Einhorn, now principal owner of the Chicago White Sox, and Philadephia Phillies principal owner Bill Giles, the powers behind baseball's television committee.
Some say Einhorn & Co. also compiled an all-encompassing ratings survey which showed that baseball, overall, drew almost exactly half the viewers that NFL football did. So it wasn't long before someone looked at the NFL's five-year, $2 billion TV deal consummated last year, divided by two, and . . .
That's right. Works out to be about $1 billion.
Baseball apparently sweetened the deal for both ABC and NBC by including a provision allowing for a national pay-cable baseball network. That was even more intriguing than the promise to banish local television baseball on Saturdays for the sake of NBC's exclusivity.
Baseball itself, according to Spence, would set up a company that would run the whole show -- scheduling, production, packaging, presumably announcing. Neither ABC nor NBC would get involved. Should technology make such a network viable by the contract's expiration in 1989, and many think it will, Spence said ABC's and NBC's interests would be purely financial.