When Ted Turner's superstation, WTBS, bought the television rights to the Ewing vs. Sampson game for $575,000 last summer, it landed the most important sports event ever to appear on "basic" cable TV. The transaction also was noteworthy because it showed that for all their money and power, the major networks no longer can impose their will on every college athletic director with a game to sell.
On Saturday night, Dec. 11, WTBS will broadcast the Georgetown-Virginia game to a potential cable audience of 24 million homes. Most other viewers will be able to see the matchup via a syndicate of over-the-air stations. How the game wound up on cable and not on CBS, which will air a Disney special and a movie the night of Dec. 11, is a tale of principle and intrigue.
Long before Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo and his Virginia counterpart, Richard Schultz, agreed last May to schedule this game, the possibility of a Ewing-Sampson confrontation had been the subject of intense speculation. One person who thought the game would come off was Russ Potts, head of Sports Productions, Inc., a Dallas firm that buys sporting events for TV syndication. Potts is also a consultant to WTBS on choosing football and basketball games to telecast. On March 30, the day after the NCAA basketball final, he met in a New Orleans hotel room with WTBS President Bob Wussler and Executive Sports Producer Terry Hanson. Pledging themselves to secrecy, the trio agreed to go as aggressively as possible after any Georgetown-Virginia game that might be played. Turner didn't learn of their scheme until two months later.
Potts, 43, a former athletic director at SMU and assistant AD at Maryland, designed a proposal that initially called for the game to be shown via closed circuit in theaters and on pay-per-view TV under the auspices of Sports Productions, Inc. and WTBS. In April Potts began beating a path to Rienzo's door; by this time the game was all but set and Potts was trying to persuade Rienzo to go with WTBS. "I was holding hands and baby-sitting," says Potts. "It was like recruiting an athlete." Rienzo finally persuaded Schultz to schedule the game for Dec. 11 at the Capital Centre outside Washington, D.C. It would be a home game for the Hoyas, meaning Rienzo would control the TV rights. Rienzo, who's known as a shrewd negotiator, decided to hold an auction. On May 26 he invited bids from seven networks and syndicators—CBS, NBC, WTBS, Katz Sports, Tanner, Inc., TVS and Madison Square Garden.
On the morning of June 15, the deadline for bids, five CBS executives visited Rienzo in his office. Potts had told Rienzo that WTBS would carry the game from the Philippines at 3 a.m. on the Fourth of July if that's what Georgetown wanted, but the CBS contingent said the Hoyas would have to shift the game to the night of Jan. 8 if they wanted prime-time exposure. CBS further told Rienzo that Georgetown had a better chance of winning in January, when its young team would have gained some experience. The network heavies smugly described their proposal as "quite extraordinary." Keeping the exact amount of the bid a secret even from three of his colleagues at the meeting, CBS Sports Vice-President Craig Foster then wrote down the figure and immediately sealed the paper in a plain white envelope. He passed it to Rienzo, who filed it with the other bids. CBS' offer was $510,000—later to be raised to $635,000, the $125,000 increase encompassing a $50,000 "incentive fee" for a proposed switch of the Georgetown-St. John's Big East matchup from Jan. 8 to Dec. 11 and $75,000 for the rights to that game. The CBS representatives flew back to New York City confident the game was in hand.
Fifteen days later, in an upstairs room of the 1789, a posh restaurant a block from the Georgetown campus, Rienzo signed the landmark contract with WTBS. What went wrong for CBS? For one thing, it underestimated its opposition. Potts knew Rienzo well from his days at Maryland. Potts is also a hustler who met with Rienzo or Schultz half a dozen times before CBS showed up. More important, CBS seemed to misgauge Rienzo. Here was a man, perhaps a bit stubborn and pedantic, who resents the smallest intrusion into his affairs, who had wrangled with the networks for years over where their promotional banners would be hung at Georgetown games and over how many minutes the tipoff would be delayed to accommodate a telecast.
During the June 15 meeting Rienzo indicated to the men from CBS that he didn't want to change his schedule. He asked them a rhetorical question: "You mean you guys are going to walk out of this room and not submit a bid for the date [Dec. 11] I requested?" The answer was a cocksure yes. "As it turned out," says Rienzo, "the bids were comparable. I didn't have to sell my virtue."