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Original Issue

The billion-dollar ball game

No matter who pays what, baseball's new network deal will make it a winner

Last December, when major league baseball discussed a new TV contract at its winter meetings in Hawaii, one network quietly vowed to spend the $1 billion—that's "b" as in boom or "b" as in bust, depending on your viewpoint—that baseball seemed to want. That network was NBC, victim of the U.S. boycott in the 1980 Olympics and loser in the recent past of battles for the TV rights to the NCAA basketball tournament and the USFL. Having gone Oh for Three, it decided it wasn't going to lose baseball, even if it had to borrow from Vin Scully to raise the money.

Thus began one of the more daring gambles in the history of sports TV. As last week's headlines—DEAL PUTS BASEBALL IN BLACK and PACT COULD SAVE BOWIE'S JOB—indicated, baseball now is assured of its $1 billion, and the new TV deal could save lame-duck Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's job. But the back-room wheeling and dealing—still going strong as this week began—is the most intriguing story.

One thing about NBC Chairman Grant Tinker, network President Robert Mulholland and sports President Arthur Watson—they're ardent suitors. When the Pooh-Bahs of baseball and their wives hit the Sheraton Waikiki before Christmas, the women found in their rooms terry-cloth robes with the logo of NBC on the back and of major league baseball on the front. The baseball brass ate Chinese dinners with chopsticks bearing the sign of the peacock. For a Polynesian motif show, NBC imported 26 Eurasian children, each decked out in a big league shirt and cap and singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Absurd? Of course. But it was some enchanted evening as far as baseball was concerned.

Within weeks, White Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn, who in real life was the owner of TVS, emerged as the dominant figure of baseball's three-member TV Committee, which includes Kuhn and Phillie President Bill Giles. Einhorn circulated to TV bigwigs his "dream sheet," a set of figures purporting to prove that TV could indeed pay baseball $1 billion—an $810 million increase over the four-year contract now running out—and turn a profit. Network officials were initially astounded at the figure, but Fast Eddie kept right on promoting it.

There were weeks of planning and at least one secret meeting with Kuhn before NBC unveiled its grand strategy: to blow all comers out of the water. Not only did it go to the mat to keep its share of the World Series, playoffs and All-Star Game—events which it now shares on an annually rotating basis with ABC—but it tried to bid preemptorily for all of baseball's national rights.

A chronic loser in the ratings, NBC figured it could ride the highly rated Series games to overall Nielsen supremacy for its new fall lineup, just as ABC did with the Olympics in 1972. The week before last, Watson signed away $500 million for the "first half" of the new contract, entitling NBC to the Series in 1984, '86 and '88 and to the playoffs and All-Star Game in '85 and '87.

Then came the crusher: On March 1 Watson bid $500 million for the "second half of the package as well—the Series in '85 and '87, the playoffs and All-Star Game in the other years, and the grab bag of prime-time games ABC has been carrying. Einhorn, who's nothing if not gutsy, gave ABC a flat 10 days to match NBC's bid and stay in the lineup. (CBS, with half the NFL as well as the NCAAs and the Masters, has shown only mild interest in baseball.)

So infuriated was ABC by both the bid and Einhorn's deadline that John Lazarus, ABC's vice-president for sports sales, reportedly stormed out of an in-house meeting on the deal. As ABC asked for an extension last week, Watson was smiling like Felix the Cat. Waiting one night for ABC's response, he and his NBC cohorts played baseball trivia. One question: Name eight brother combinations to hit homers in the same game. (The NBC crowd got five: the Waners, DiMaggios, Aarons, Alous and Cruzes.)

ABC responded with a brushback pitch. It wanted no part of a five-year deal—but it might be interested in six years at $625 million if NBC would agree to pay $575 million. Ah, the craftiness of ABC. Like NBC, it would get three World Series, NBC couldn't steal the October ratings book for five years running and—try swallowing this—Howard Cosell might have a shot at doing baseball until 1990.

As in any poker game, there are winners and losers. Watson wins if he rakes in all the chips. If he doesn't, he at least has bled ABC a bit before all sides begin bidding on the 1988 Seoul Olympics later this year. The true winner, of course, is Fast Eddie. Just think of it. A possible $1.2 billion. A fourfold increase in money per team—from $1.9 million to $7.69 million a year. George Steinbrenner once called Einhorn the Lou Costello of baseball. If so, he's one Costello who knows exactly who's on first.


Einhorn's statistics hit home with slumping NBC.