In the cable television business, once is not enough. It's not even close.
True to this tradition, the Baltimore Orioles will be televised 145 times next season, 80 games on a new pay-cable channel tentatively called The Sports Network. This channel is a programming arm of Group W Satellite Communications (GWSC), a division of Westinghouse Broadcasting and Cable Inc.
GWSC is coordinating a regional cable sports network that will include the Baltimore-Washington area, Chicago, Wisconsin, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest.
The primary difference between this new sports network and old standbys ESPN and USA is the emphasis on regional coverage. For instance, GWSC is continuing negotiations with the Capitals, the Bullets, and the Baltimore Blast and hopes to televise local college basketball games with American University, the University of Maryland, Georgetown, Navy and George Mason.
"The highly regional bias makes this very exciting and potentially important to all sporting teams," said Lawrence Lucchino, vice president and general counsel of the Orioles. "This will be an important source of marketing and promotion."
The Orioles are the centerpiece of the network for this region. This season WMAR-TV-2 in Baltimore is originating 50 Orioles games. Super TV, the subscription-television service, shows another 16 and the numbers are expected to be the same next season. The new cable channel will present 80 games in addition to those other two contracts, and plans to show 10 spring training games as well.
GWSC and the Orioles have been negotiating for several months and the contract is nearly complete. Both sides agreed not to make public details of the contract, except that it is "long-term."
The New York Yankees, for example, have a 20-year pact with the Long Island-based Sports-Channel, worth approximately $100,000 a game, according to Steve Saferin of Metro Sports. Saferin estimates the Orioles' contract is probably in the range of $30,000 to $50,000 a game.
The Orioles games will be only one part of a schedule that is proposed to run 16 hours a day on weekdays and up to 20 hours on weekends. The network will feature a Sports Desk (similar to CBS' NFL Sunday football studio show), a statistical information segment previewing the games to be played, local pregame shows, postgame wrapups, a comprehensive sports "scoreboard" and possibly a late-night phone-in show.
The network will also replay the night's game at least once and maybe twice during its programming schedule.
"The key is that we're showing the home team," said Dick Glover, vice president for sports development at GWSC. "ESPN and USA are national in scope. The people in Baltimore-Washington are not interested in bocce from Texas.
"There's a place for that in the market, don't get me wrong. But we're giving people what they want."
The people won't get what they want if they don't have access to the new channel. Presently, only Alexandria, Arlington, Reston and parts of Prince Georges County have cable. Fairfax and Montgomery counties have been granted franchises, but the homes have yet to be wired. In Washington, cable television is unavailable indefinitely.
"It all depends on the 'new builds,' " said Lucchino. "That means all of the newly-built cable systems. The start-up time is rather fast."
There are more than 1 million cable subscribers in the targeted region (Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, parts of West Virginia and North Carolina) and Glover hopes that 20 percent of those will take the channel.
"We're gearing this for the hardcore sports fans; that's why we will have a narrow focus. We're going to hire sports experts, not those well-coiffed types the networks use. We need people the fans can believe in."
The service will cost each subscriber approximately $10 to $14 a month. The price is set by the cable franchise, which buys the channel from GWSC. "We will price it so that the more people who sign up the less the franchise will pay," said Glover.
The Capitals and Bullets are both still negotiating with GWSC. "We hope either positively or negatively that we will finish before the start of next season," said Jerry Sachs, executive vice-president of the Capital Center. Currently, WDCA-TV-20 televises 25 Bullets and 15 Capitals games.
Not everyone is taking the money and running. "I get worried about saturation of any sport," said Bob Frailey, athletic director at American. "We must evaluate the situation each time. We're still supposed to be playing for the student body. Maybe, we're letting the tail wag the dog."