Peter Ueberroth may have hit his first home run as baseball commissioner today as he laid the groundwork for a quick solution to the game's nagging superstation TV wars.
"A resolution was passed by a vote of 25 to 1 to move forward to find a business solution immediately to our problem with superstations," he said this evening at baseball's winter meetings.
The resolution outlined two possible remedies. The first choice -- which probably would be Ueberroth's favorite -- is for superstation teams (such as the Braves and Cubs) to pay baseball for the games that are beamed into homes outside their territory.
"If the Cubs, for instance, beam a game into San Diego's territory, then they would have to pay for that penetration into someone else's market," Ueberroth said.
"If no fairness can be achieved by this method, then try for a reduction in the number of games which are broadcast," said Ueberroth, who has worked behind the scenes for weeks to ramrod through today's key votes.
"Baseball has been riddled with a lot of anger because of this superstation issue since 1975. It's time to take action. We said, 'Here are the two courses. Pool the money and split it up equally, or else cut back the number of games on the air."
In a veiled threat, Ueberroth said that if the owners did not pick one of these two choices -- and put it in place before the 1985 season -- he would have to seek other remedies. In other words, get tough.
The owners also voted, 25-1, in favor of changing their voting procedures on all TV issues. "Instead of needing a three-quarters majority in each league, now just a majority vote is required," said Ueberroth, adding that this is a crucial point because "the superstation vote (later in the meeting) might not have gone the same way if the new voting rules weren't in place . . .
"I was pleased with the votes today . . . especially since there were four, five or six teams in that room with superstation potential," said Ueberroth, aware of the spectacular divisiveness of baseball's owners at such meetings in recent years. "A lot of (political) work went into those votes. If you kept track of the air fares into New York (for owners to meet privately with Ueberroth), you'd think we were trying to make the airlines rich . . .
"I really am surprised this issue hasn't been dealt with before when it's so simple. It's a violation of another team's territory. The end result is unfair. For example, last year the ratings in Tulsa, which is in the Texas Rangers' territory, were higher for Braves games than for Ranger games when they went head to head . . .
"We can't say that this is a step in the right direction yet . . . (but) if there is a basic willingness to solve this large problem, and to do it before the '85 season . . . then I'll know that some people (in ownership) know it's time for us to cooperate."
The Braves, Cubs and Mets have superstations that beam games far outside their territories. Ueberroth's fears about these stations have been threefold: that they will kill minor league attendance, that they will hurt the attendance of poor major league teams, and that they will oversaturate the whole TV market to the point that the major networks never again will pay anything like the current $1-billion TV contract the game now enjoys.
Ueberroth also made himself felt in several other areas today. His two pet concerns, however, were expansion and on-field violence.
"Expansion is a front-burner item which will be looked at seriously as soon as our labor situation is settled," said the commissioner, who is in his third month in office. "I'm not going to put baseball on a deadline. Expansion is an owners decision. But I'd have no objection to have it happen quickly.
"Some expansion cities have asked if it is baseball's position -- since we have seven teams up for sale -- whether we have to solve all those (financial) problems before we can expand," he said. "The answer is, 'No.'
"I've told all the cities that this is a serious subject that's on the table and stands on its own merits. I've told them, 'Do the economics. They'll weigh more heavily than public relations.'
"If a city had 30,000 season tickets sold for the next five years, that would be interesting, wouldn't it?" he said, using a hyperbolic example. "But if a city says, 'We're going to put up balloons . . . well . . . "
The biggest gainer in the expansion derby here has been Washington, by a large margin. "Washington has dramatically improved its chances of getting a franchise in the past week," said lawyer Sandy Hadden, baseball's secretary-treasurer and one of Ueberroth's key aides.
"Jack Kent Cooke and the D.C. Baseball Commission people who came down here this week did all the right things. They are certainly right in the picture, though I wouldn't rank the cities," Hadden added.
The general feeling here is that Washington has moved up so quickly that the two warring factions in Florida -- Tampa and St. Petersberg -- are on the verge of announcing that they will unite their efforts, stop fighting each other and build one new stadium in Tampa. In other words, they are more worried about Washington beating them out than they are about beating each other to the punch for the sake of local bragging rights.
Dave Clarke, chairman of the D.C. City Council, met briefly with Ueberroth and other baseball officials here Tuesday night and said he was "very encouraged" by his conversations. Cooke and most of the members of the commission left here early today.
As to bench-clearing fights in baseball, Ueberroth said, "I'm very aware of baseball's traditions, but bench-clearing situations are not a tradition. Last year was not attractive to baseball.
"I put this item on the agenda and told the owners they might have difficult dealings with me if they don't make something happen in that area."