For the price of a phone call, football fans across the world can spend each autumn Saturday following Navy, Army or Penn State games.
You don't need a satellite dish or cable. You don't even need a television set or a radio. In what can only be regarded as yet another threat to the waning stability of the American family, all you need to follow these football teams, in fact, is a telephone.
Because of AT&T's "Dial It" 900 service, all broadcasts of Navy, Army and Penn State games this season can be heard by simply dialing the right number.
Yes, now you can reach out and touch someone like Napoleon McCallum -- for 50 cents for the first minute and 35 cents for each additional minute.
The "Dial-It" service allows sponsors, for a onetime charge of $250, to provide live or prerecorded information on a 900 number. Athletic and alumni associations sponsor the broadcasts; AT&T takes the revenues from the calls.
Last year, the Penn State Alumni Association, searching for a way to allow more of its 70,000 members to hear Nittany Lions football, hooked up with the phone company. Five games that weren't getting wide TV exposure were broadcast on the 900 service; an average of more than 500 calls were made to the number during each game. Penn State, along with the two service academies, decided to go the 900 way full-time this year.
The 900 number attracts more business, naturally, for games that are not televised widely. For instance, Penn State's opener this season against Maryland was on the USA cable network; only 337 calls were made to the 900 number. The next game against Temple attracted 1,649 calls.
For Navy and Army, the 900 service is a natural because of the world-wide military personnel interested in following them. The trick is notifying the right people that the service is available.
"We want to promote people getting together and making it an event. We're looking at hospitals, enlisted clubs, officers' clubs and the like," said Cheryl Smith, Navy's sports promotions director. "I'm contacting all the fleet commanders. We want to hit the ships. We figure we have captive audiences there -- literally."
Navy's 900 number operates for about a 12-hour period, picking up WNAV-1430's live coverage of the game, then rebroadcasting it three times to allow folks in different time zones to tune in.
Now, if you actually wanted to listen in entirety to the typical three-hour game, your bill would run $63.15. (Unless you're part of that overseas captive audience, in which case you pay the going international rate, which might just equal your airfare home.) So the weekly choice is yours: the thrill of buying groceries for your family or the agony of listening to another Army defeat.
The average call has lasted five minutes or so, meaning most people decide to just check out the score and a few plays, so that they can still feed the children.
The numbers to dial are: for Penn State, 1-900-410-5555; for Navy, 1-900-410-NAVY; for Army, 1-900-410-ARMY.
If you're looking quickly for a football score on a Saturday, you might scan your local radio dial futilely for a sportscast or spend a few nickels on an out-of-town sports scoretape.
The smart folks call 362-4444.
Shortly after his arrival in 1980 as WRC-TV-4 sportscaster, George Michael started his scoretape. Although he plugs it mercilessly on the air, it indeed has been an asset to the casual fan or hardened gambler who wants to know a partial score on a Cavaliers-SuperSonics NBA game right now.
It's complete, it's updated frequently and it's free.
Michael's "Sports Machine" number, which has a 50-line capacity, averages more than 10,000 calls a day. Saturdays and Sundays usually are busiest, but nothing compares to the NFL and NBA draft days, which attracted 69,000 and 65,000 calls, respectively, this year. To get through on those days, you virtually needed a court order or access to a CIA operative.
On football Saturdays, 362-4444 provides more than 100 college scores, even giving results of small, faraway schools that probably didn't realize they had football programs. Patience is essential; if you want to know the Alabama score and the tape already is into the Bs and Cs, you have time to reenact your entire childhood before the Alabama score makes it back onto the tape.
Michael's army of assistants -- Joel Goldberg, Jeff Hoffman, Bruce Kaufman, Joe Schreiber and Michael Stone -- who update the tape, seemingly are interchangeable in their styles and rhythms.
The biggest drawback (or advantage, depending on your viewpoint) is the decibel level. You could call 362-4444, leave the phone on the dining-room table, go outside, mow the lawn and still hear all the scores clearly.