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The dawn of a new era

Free TV for baseball is declining, and pay TV is significantly on the rise

Next Tuesday, at precisely 2:30 p.m. C.S.T. in a cable-television studio in downtown Cincinnati, a new baseball age will dawn. Byron Day, formerly of NBC Sports, and Leandra Reilly, formerly of ESPN, will welcome cable viewers in 15 states to the debut of Sports Time, one of six new regional pay-TV services affiliated with eight teams that will carry big league baseball for the first time this season. Mark the date for posterity. With Day and Reilly's appearance, the pendulum will be in full swing away from games on "free" over-the-air TV toward the day the majority of the games will be on pay TV.

This year, for the first time anyone can remember, fewer local games will be on free TV than the season before—4.9% fewer. There also will be more games on pay TV than ever before: This year's pay games will make up 44.2% of the total of all televised contests. Furthermore, major league baseball has come up with a one-year "warehouse-in-the-sky" experiment for pay services. Teams have decided to pool TV rights to their games, allowing the Orioles, say, to show an Angels-White Sox game when their pay service would otherwise be dark. You don't have to be a genius to figure out which way the grand old game is headed.

Regional pay services are sprouting like green onions in the outfield grass. Anheuser-Busch's Sports Time, the big daddy of the six, will carry 52 games each of the Cardinals, Reds and Royals. Game 1, Cardinals at Dodgers, begins 30 minutes after Day and Reilly come over the wire. Westinghouse's Home Team Sports debuts a day later, in Washington, D.C. and six states, with the first of 80 Orioles games, for which it shelled out the highest annual rights fee among the new regionals, $4 million. Other teams revving up regional systems include the Red Sox, Tigers, Brewers and Padres. The basic premise is that fans can only be expected to pay for games that interest them—namely those involving the local team. But the services will come with a bite—an average cost of $9 to $12 a month per subscriber, plus the basic monthly cable charge of $10 or so. And the history of sports on pay TV has been dismal so far. Says Bryan Burns, baseball's director of broadcasting, "We're walking on eggshells here."

Viewers who traditionally have watched most of their home team's games for free now must worry about how far and how fast the swing toward pay will be. The Brewers, who are putting 67 games on their new Sportsvue pay service, plan to cut back their free-TV schedule from 60 to 30 games. The Red Sox have lopped 33 games off their over-the-air schedule (from 103 to 70) and put 90 games on pay. Next year, the Yankees, who pioneered regional pay TV with Sportschannel in 1978, will go from 50 to 100 games on pay and from 100 to about 50 games on free TV. "I don't see any real danger of a major swing away from free TV," commissioner Bowie Kuhn says consolingly, arguing that teams will always need conventional TV to maximize their exposure. But Brewers president Bud Selig isn't so sure. Could over-the-air games vanish? "The only honest answer I can give you," Selig says, "is I don't think anybody knows."

Neither is anybody sure of the effect pay TV will have on the attendance of teams in midsize markets. Can they afford to jeopardize their gate by loading more of their home games on pay channels? "Clubs are getting guarantees [$1 million for those on Sports Time], but I personally don't think those guarantees are enough to protect them from attendance erosion—nowhere near it," says Burns. Let's suppose a team gets a $500,000 payment for 25 home games, which equals a $20,000-per-game guarantee. Say revenues average $10 a pop. If 2,001 fans stay home on a given day because they can watch the game on pay TV, the team starts to lose money. "I'm a firm believer in the concept of what we're doing," Burns says, "but I'm just not one to jump up on the box and yell about it before we're there." Adds Kuhn, "At the risk of sounding like a manager, we'll have to take it a game at a time."

None of the regional services will hit its weight for a while. Sports Time will be delighted if it has 100,000 subscribers—nickel-and-dime stuff, only 5% of its potential—at the end of '84. But most of this year's crop will probably survive says industry analyst Alan Cole-Ford of Paul Kagan Associates, a cable-TV consulting firm. For one thing, the number of U.S. television homes with access to cable—66.2% at last count—is waxing, though only 41.4% of those are actually wired. For another, there may be more than just baseball on sports pay TV this year if the Supreme Court permits colleges to sell their TV football rights on the open market. After half a century of making more games available to the masses for free, first on radio, then on local TV, then on the networks, baseball is moving in the opposite direction.


Day and Reilly's Sports Time is the largest of the six new cable systems.