JANUARY 1, 2001
My name is Ulysses S. Spectator, age 50, born in the Great American Postwar Baby Boom of the '50s, raised to manhood in the Great American TV Sports Boom of the '60s, and now a lively, though graying, resident of Duluth, a postman by profession, a sports fan by preference. I am here to tell you that I am pretty pleased with life in the 21st century.
The ozone layer is a bit more depleted and the resulting greenhouse warmth makes winter pretty nice in Duluth. It is New Year's Day, and the temperature is 50°. Very pleasant. However, I do miss that cozy-cocoon sensation I have experienced on so many New Year's Days past as I sat snug in front of my TV, watching hour after hour of college bowl games, while bone-freezing winds whipped off the ice pack on Lake Superior.
But today I'm going to be too busy to care about that. I am going to watch all of the 24 scheduled bowl games. Like most serious American sports fans, I have Home Control Truck (HCT) installed in my living room. This relatively inexpensive ($1,250) state-of-the-art system allows me to call up my own pictures, sound and instant replays as network directors of old once did in their control trucks.
For the record, neither networks nor control trucks as we knew them are any longer involved in TV sports. The networks dropped out in the mid-1990s, whining to the end about skyrocketing rights fees and every American's God-given entitlement to free televised sport. After the networks backed out, each major sports league or organization—the NCAA, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA—took over its own centralized television operations, creating what are known as master webs.
Each master web has control over everything connected with TV for its league or organization, from setting pay-per-view fees to selling advertising to producing telecasts. The various master webs operate in complete autonomy. However, to cut costs, all master webs share the same massive central production facilities in the 36-story Manhattan skyscraper that used to be CBS headquarters. Once known as Black Rock, the building is nicknamed Big MOACT, short for the "Mother of All Control Trucks."
Everything that I receive on Home Control Truck comes from Big MOACT, where today the NCAA master web is producing all 24 bowl games via on-site camera-and-sound transmissions from 24 different stadiums. My HCT system, which is fairly typical for someone with my income, includes a wall of 16 small TV monitors, plus my own director's microphone, tucked behind one of the monitors, and a console to select whatever pictures and sounds I want to appear on my central eight-foot, high-definition TV screen, known as Big Eye.
Because there is so much going on today, the NCAA's basic production-control computer at Big MOACT is programmed so that a sudden crowd roar from one of the games will instantly superimpose a message on Big Eye notifying me that a VEM (Very Exciting Moment) has occurred. The message will then indicate how I can call up the moment from the Big Tape Replay at Big MOACT. I can also order up my own choice of specific VEMs from any game—such as my favorites: ADMB (All Dixieland Marching Bands) and CIPBM (Cheerleaders in Particularly Brief Miniskirts).
The big game today is the No. 1 Bowl, which is the climax of a postseason elimination tournament among the eight best college teams. The bowl's full name is the Budweiser/Preparation H No. 1 Bowl, and it matches the Notre Dame General Electrics against the Southern Cal Toshibas. As I said, each sports TV master web goes its own separate way in all things. This includes each web's choice of revenue sources, and the NCAA has emphasized corporate sponsorships more than most.
The big money crunch for the NCAA came after the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that colleges were guilty of participating in a form of discrimination bordering on slavery as long as they pretended to require varsity athletes to attend class and did not pay them openly for their participation in sports. Thus, all college players are now given their paychecks in a public ceremony after each game. There is a salary ceiling of $50,000 a year in order to distinguish college players from full-fledged professionals. Nevertheless, the upfront player payrolls added such a load to athletic department budgets that the NCAA had to recruit corporate sponsors to purchase the athletic departments outright.
Once owned by a corporation, everything in college sport became available as prime advertising space for sponsors' products—from players' uniforms to goal posts to referees' shirts to the game ball itself. This has had a very positive effect in that it has eliminated commercials from all NCAA telecasts. However, some loyal alums have found it hard to go to games where every cheer, fight song and marching band formation is being used to sell cars, toothpaste, toasters or disposable diapers.
Of course, the major source of revenue for all sports in the 21st century is pay-per-view television—PPV-TV. Each sports master web has a slightly different approach to PPV, and I will explain some of the others later. Today, tuning into the NCAA's full 24-game program will cost me $7 on my Tele-Pay account. Tele-Pay is a universal charge system that generates a single monthly bill for all the pay-per-view programs I buy, including movies, concerts and special events. If I don't want the full NCAA package today and want access only to the No. 1 Bowl, my Tele-Pay charge is $4. If I want access to the lesser bowls, the price range is from 50 cents for the Amtrak/Uncle Ben's Fiesta Bowl to $3 for the Kitty Litter/IBM Rose Bowl. The prices are relatively low, you will notice, but about 40 million homes will be on Tele-Pay with the NCAA today, and since nearly all of them will pay at least the $4 for the super-popular No. 1 Bowl, the total take for the NCAA master web will beat least $160 million.
It is a lot of money, but the NCAA doesn't get it all. I am not going to tell you about that now, though. The bowl games have begun and—uh-oh, I have just been notified of a VEM—a CIPBM, no less. Excuse me.
In 1998, when the NFL decided on a 20-game season, the Super Bowl was moved to mid-February. The regular season begins in mid-August and ends in early January, then moves smartly into four tiers of championship playoffs. There are 40 teams now, 10 in each of four conferences, including the Over There Conference with the foreign teams—London, Paris, Berlin, Teheran, Johannesburg, Bombay, Djakarta, Sydney, Auckland and Mexico City.
Today is Super Bowl XXXV, which pits the Cincinnati Bengals against the Anchorage Caribou (there was another gold rush in 1994). The basic Tele-Pay pricing system for NFL games is simple and cheap. On any given Sunday, or sometimes Monday or Thursday night, I can watch my home team—the Minnesota Vikings—play for $1. For $1.50 I can include one other particularly interesting game that day. For $5 I can access the entire 20-game schedule that week, including the NCAA-style Very Exciting Moments feature, as well as the usual Home Control Truck stuff, which allows me to call up any shot in any game—from an overhead blimp picture of the whole Twin City area to an intimate sideline minicam view up the bloody nostrils of a 380-pound defensive end with a broken nose.
With some 35 million homes tuned in to one NFL program or another on any given game day, the total revenue is about $262.5 million a week, before the local cable operators take their 20% cut. Playoff game prices range from $2.50 for all eight first-round games to $6 for the Super Bowl. All told, the postseason generates $1.2 billion—and the NFL doesn't get all of that, either. More on that later. Of course, the PPV prices for NFL telecasts are far lower than people predicted they would be years ago. Many thought a PPV Super Bowl would cost at least $50 or even $100 per home. But the masterminds of the NFL master web were smarter than that. They have retained hefty advertising revenues to keep their Tele-Pay prices low.
It works like this: When the networks dropped TV sports, millions of corporate advertising dollars were still available to sponsor NFL games. The league had been flirting with pay-per-view programming in the early '90s, but in 1995 an angry Congress passed legislation declaring that the NFL, baseball and college football and basketball were all "American birthrights," and were thus prohibited from charging the public to view their product on TV. The old commercial sponsorship system continued until 1996 when, abruptly, the Supreme Court overturned the anti-PPV law, ruling that it was a clear obstruction of interstate commerce. The NFL was free to tap into the great PPV treasure trove.
And there was still that lovely supply of advertising money besides. Of course, it didn't take a genius to realize that once a pro football fan began paying up front for his NFL games, he wouldn't stand for being besieged by the same irritating 10 minutes of commercials that the NFL had previously allowed the networks to cram into each hour of each telecast. What to do? As always, the NFL was on the cutting edge. It still sells 10 minutes of commercials during each hour of play. In fact, it sells them to the same companies that bought them before and for the same pre-PPV price of $110,000 per 30-second commercial. However, advertisers are now allowed no more than five seconds for each commercial. At first, advertisers vigorously refused to accept this deal. But soon it became clear that American businessmen simply could not get along without the strange, possibly perverted, macho-commercial relationship they had enjoyed with pro football for decades. And the bite-sized five-second sales pitch ultimately proved to be an irresistible challenge to American advertising ingenuity. Today, the industry's most coveted awards are the Bitty-Bite Awards, given for the best five-second commercials.
Well, the Super Bowl is starting and I must immerse myself. I have already set up my personal Very Exciting Moment program, which today includes VHAFP (Vicious Hits Away From the Play) and SPAL (Sneak Punches Among Linemen). Suffice it to say that working at the post office doesn't fulfill all my emotional needs.
The NCAA's Exxon/L.L. Bean Final Four has just become history. As my Instant Audience Analysis Indicator shows, the ratings this year were not so hot. This was partly because the championship game was a bore—a blowout in which the UNLV Runnin' Rolaids beat the Duke Blue BMWs, 139-72. But much of the falloff in viewership occurred because the nation had been sated a week earlier with all the fresh and exciting basketball it could take during the third annual USA Today High School Final Four. This increasingly popular event features an elimination tournament among USA Today's 32 top-rated high school teams, and the spectacle of these excitable teenagers playing their innocent young hearts out has completely captured the American imagination. Of course, there are the inevitable rumors in the media (USA Today excepted) that some of these players are neither so innocent nor so young, but so far nothing has been proved and I personally am accepting the whole thing at face value, acne and all.
The federal income tax deadline and Opening Day of the baseball season both occur today. While I am transmitting my completed tax form through Home Control Truck directly to the IRS satellite, I am watching President Dan Quayle as he putts the first ball from home plate to the mound to inaugurate the 2001 season at the vast, fishbowl-shaped stadium of the world champion Florida Marlins. Just now starting his second term, Quayle has let it be known that he wants to go down in history as the "Sportsmanship President," and he points to the fact that he pays his monthly Tele-Pay bills out of his own pocket as one proof of his commitment to fair play.
Golf is still Quayle's favorite game, but he doesn't play anymore. He prefers instead to spend long hours watching televised tournaments, hoping to catch a player in some obscure violation of the rules so he can call in and report him, thus documenting for all time the high level of sportsmanship in his Administration.
Speaking of taxes, Quayle campaigned, as did George Bush before him, on a promise of no new taxes. It didn't work that way.
I am here to tell you that we now have a marvelously popular system of taxes that is based on the humongous revenues that pay-per-view television is generating. When PPV first began to spread through the country in the mid-'90s, the American people rose up in a monumental outcry. Naturally, we didn't want to have to pay for anything that we had gotten for free for so long. But much, much more infuriating to us was the knowledge that all of those countless billions of PPV dollars were going to end up in the pockets of some of the most venal people in the world—namely the owners, executives, agents and players of big-time sports in America. We were already appalled by the unvarnished greed exhibited by so many of the leading lights of our sports establishment. And we were even more disgusted by the thought that the more we paid for sports, the more these louts and ingrates would profit. We still loved our games, but we despised the greed of the people who played and ran them.
So we raised hell. We couldn't stop the onslaught of PPV, but we did stop all the money from going to the sticky-fingered sports establishment. In 1998 Congress passed by an overwhelming margin—over President Quayle's veto—a bill calling for a 70% federal tax on all PPV revenues. Since the annual total generated by PPV last year was just over $50 billion, that taxation produced a cool $35 billion, which was earmarked for good causes that had long gone without strong federal support, such as cancer and AIDS research and aid to education, the arts and the homeless. Some of the money was also used to take a bite out of the national debt. Federal employees, including yours truly and all the men and women at the Duluth post office, were recently given a 10% raise—the first since our salaries were frozen in 1994 after the S&L bailout hit $1 trillion.
The state and municipal governments also levy heavy taxes on PPV revenue, and they have initiated another much-needed form of social aid: subsidized access to televised sports for those who can't afford Tele-Pay rates. Most states and towns now offer Welfare Sports Aid. This allows the full schedule of all nearby big league and major college teams, plus the so-called jewels—the No. 1 Bowl, the Super Bowl, both Final Fours, the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500, the World Series, etc.—to be shown free on government-supplied TV sets in the homes of poverty-level families. There are also federal Sports Aid stamps, which are issued to the poor in the same way that food stamps used to be and are applied as credits against Tele-Pay charges.
What we have wrought here is simply some of the most enlightened taxation in history. Besides all the good being done with tax money, the PPV bundle available to the sports establishment—roughly $10 billion a year—is more than enough to make everyone at the master webs quite prosperous, if not obscenely rich. Actually, the various heavy PPV taxes have worked to put a cap on payrolls in all sports; even in baseball, top salaries have not risen above the 1991 peak of $5 million a year—which makes all of us who love sport but hate greed a bunch of happy campers.
Today is the Kentucky Derby, and Jim McKay, looking not a day over 90, along with Jack Whitaker, looking not a day over 115, are nattering on about the agony of defeat as they stand in front of the spires at Churchill Downs. Through my Home Betting Window (HBW) service I have punched up my usual $5 hunch bet on the Derby—a nag named Demmie's Delight at 8-1. HBW also allows me to participate fully in the parimutuel systems of all the tracks around the country. Each morning before I go to work, I place a $1 bet on an extreme long shot that the Tele-Tout Service has selected for me. I like all tipsters. Tele-Tout is flawed, and I have cashed no more than one or two big winners over the years.
Of course, there is heavy national betting on all sports—not only game results but all sorts of side bets and long-odds wagers. Anything that does not involve track betting is operated through the National Gambling Network—nicknamed Robo-Bookie by its fans. Sprawled here in my armchair, I can receive the latest point spreads and place instant bets on every major game being played on any given day. Robo-Bookie will happily calculate the odds for and lay off the most intricate and specific of bets. For example, during a Yankees-Tigers game I can bet on whether Mike Kelly will hit a home run off Brien Taylor, what kind of a pitch Kelly will hit, and what the count will be when he hits it.
Sports gambling is now legal in all 52 states and is heavily taxed by the federal government, bringing in $30 billion a year that was unavailable back when most betting was outlawed. These days, the government encourages gambling. There is a new Department of Bookmaking & Wagers in the U.S. Cabinet, headed by the Bookmaker General. Bookmaking & Wagers oversees the whole American gambling system and will install Home Betting Window, Robo-Bookie and Tele-Tout free in any American home. The money collected from gambling is earmarked only for the most worthy causes, such as elder care, abused children and world hunger. Thus, betting on sports is actually considered a charitable act.
The NBA season is now year-round, with the playoffs spanning most of the three summer months. It is the global game with 128 teams in 30 countries and is more popular than soccer ever was. The NBA's expansion is also years ahead of the NFL's puny growth abroad, and in terms of popularity is an infinity beyond Export Baseball, which is a watered-down, simplified version of the game played with one strike, two balls, one out and three innings—the result of market research that indicates that the baseball attention span of baffled foreigners will never be more than 20 minutes.
The NBA master web utilizes a unique mix of tier programming over its 12-month season. Telecasts in the first nine months of the season carry a full complement of fully paid advertising with the usual 30-second spots; there is no pay-per-view TV. Sounds like old-fashioned free TV, you say? No, it's better than free: For every commercial-filled quarter of every NBA game I watch during the regular season, I get a 25-cent PPV NBA Playoff Credit that will be applied against the cost of the full pay-per-view programming that the NBA offers during the climactic three months of playoffs.
Say I've watched 50 games—200 quarters—during the nine-month regular season. That's a $50 credit in my Tele-Pay account that I can apply to playoff charges. A $50 credit doesn't go as far as you might suppose, however, because the NBA's price scale is the highest in sports. It ranges from a reasonable $3 for the first-round elimination games up to $15 for each of the first five games in the best-of-nine championship matchup. Then it increases $5 more per game until the high-anxiety, all-or-nothing ninth game, which costs $35 to watch. A full nine-game final will be viewed in perhaps 200 million homes worldwide, meaning the NBA's PPV take can be well over $29 billion just for the championship series. Because of the vast reach of the NBA and the enormous amounts of money it collects ($50 billion in a good year), the United Nations takes a 15% cut off the top for UNICEF before the 30 individual NBA nations take their various tax bites.
I think it is worth noting for the record that the rules of pro basketball are essentially the same as in 1991. However, there is one major change, which was advanced by former Marquette coach and NBC analyst Al McGuire: There is now a composite height rule requiring that all teams in the league compete within a relatively equal Total Tallness Quotient (TTQ). This means that if a team starts, say, four players at 7'5", it must bring in a man shorter than 5'8" in order not to surpass the league's overall average TTQ. (This, of course, is similar to the NFL's Total Steroids Quotient—TSQ—which limits a 50-man team to no more than 25 players who test positive for steroids at any one time during the season.)
Speaking of TSQ, it is the opening day of the NFL season, and Tele-Pay is going to bill me the usual $5 to deliver the standard 16-game Sunday programming plus two Monday night and two Thursday night games. However, when it comes to pro football, I like a little more spice than that, and, of course, the league has come up with a series of intricate spectator-involvement programs, which can cost a lot of extra money. Here are a few of the most popular examples:
•There is a Seeing Eye minicam in every player's helmet that sees what he sees during a game. For $10, I can tie into the Seeing Eye system and spend the afternoon calling up individual players' perspectives of the game. Sometimes they are quite beautiful, as when a split end sees the gently spinning football floating into his outstretched lingers as he crosses into the end zone. Sometimes they are spine-chilling, as when a quarterback's Seeing Eye suddenly turns blood-red as he is crushed by a mountainous defensive end.
•There is the X-rated Field of Screams program, which can be paired with the Seeing Eye for a really hair-raising afternoon. It gives you full-volume coverage of all the obscenities and jungle-animal sounds that occur on an average Sabbath in the NFL pits. This also costs $10, and automatically protects children against the filth by zapping itself when anyone shorter than 4'7" enters the room.
•There is the All-Day Sunday package, which costs $25 and, via TV, allows you to be with your favorite team from the moment it gathers for breakfast at its motel until it leaves the stadium that night after the game. This is a case of total immersion in a true-to-life NFL game day, and it is also X-rated, since it includes revolting table manners, dirty jokes, ethnic insults, pregame lavatory habits (including vomiting) and obscene heckling from the bench. Most who have experienced this package believe it should be called All Day Animal House.
•The most expensive and the most provocative of all NFL packages is called Common Huddle. Subscribers like myself pay $600 ($30 a game) up front on Tele-Pay for the entire season. To be registered in Common Huddle, I notify Big MOACT a week before the first game which team I want to huddle with for the year—always the Vikings. Big MOACT then transmits a Viking playbook video for both offense and defense to my Home Control Truck memory bank. And from then on, through the regular season (playoffs are extra) I am invited, via picture and sound, into all Viking huddles, plus sideline strategy sessions and headphone traffic from coaches in the scouting box.
As the plays are called in the huddle, I order up the appropriate video diagrams from my playbook memory, superimpose them on the screen and watch to see how they unfold in real life. That is great fun, but the really heart-stopping high points for Common Huddle subscribers come when we are asked—en masse—to call a play in a game. It happens four times every game, but we never know exactly when until the screen flashes YOU BE THE QB! NOW! We have only 30 seconds to choose our plays and signal our calls to the huddle. A plurality vote among several thousand Viking Common Huddlers picks the play.
I am here to-tell you that there is no greater video thrill than the sensation of watching the Vikes go for a crucial first down—or even score a winning TD (it happened to me once)—on the exact play that I called!
Now, obviously, these extra features (and there are dozens more) can be pretty pricey for your average 50-year-old American baby-boomer employee of the U.S. Post Office with an annual salary of $59,000, which is well above the median household income for the whole country. A standard 20-game NFL hookup plus Common Huddle costs mc $35 a week. Well, it would cost me $35 if it weren't for yet another advertising brainstorm produced by the NFL master web. They call it the Major Marketing Commercials Bonus Plan—generally nicknamed Big Bad Ads. It consists of commercials that are the direct opposite of the five-second Bitty-Bites. Big Bad Ads are elaborately produced three-minute commercials made by the NFL's major sponsors. These commercials will never actually be played on air during games but rather are stored at the Big MOACT replay bank. I can call up a Big Bad Ad to watch in the privacy of my living room any time I want. And why would I want to watch a Big Bad Ad? Well, first, because these commercials are blockbuster production numbers that represent the state of the art in video technology-vibrant, exciting, creative, wonderfully entertaining. But also because I am awarded a bonus credit on my Tele-Pay NFL account for every Big Bad Ad I watch.
It works like this: Say I call up a three-minute United Airlines commercial and watch it in its entirety. I am then automatically awarded a 50-cent bonus to be applied against any Tele-Pay charges I incur during my next NFL game. Two dozen companies each pay the NFL $5 million a year to participate in Big Bad Ads.
New commercials are made once a month, and I make it a point to watch 10 Big Bad Ads each week which means, of course, that I earn $5 worth of Tele-Pay credits for games the following week. You may ask, How does the NFL know I am really watching? Simply because each subscriber to the Big Bad Ad service has transmitted to the NFL master web what is known as an H&BTF (Heartbeat-and-Body-Temperature Fingerprint). By placing my hand on the Big Bad Ad sensor console of Home Control Truck throughout the commercial, my "beat-heat print" is registered electronically—proving to the NFL that it is I, and not my mutt, Gabe, who is watching the set.
Uh-oh! "You Be the QB! Now!" Excuse me, I have to save the game.
I used to like to save my annual vacation for those sharp golden days of fall so I could backpack and camp on the north shore of Lake Superior, cooking steaks over campfires and washing them down with bourbon and cold lake water. Such autumn days are somewhat rare in these days of depleted ozone, so come October, my wife and I now rush off for two weeks of hiking and camping—among other things—in Metrodome Universe in Minneapolis.
The Houston Astrodome pioneered the stadium/theme park scheme a few decades ago with Astro World, and now Total Entertainment Environments (TEE) are routine at sports stadiums everywhere. The Metrodome Universe TEE has acres of hotels, shops, theaters, computer game parlors and, of course, Simulated Vacation Centers, which are the main reason people like us spend two full weeks at the Metrodome. They offer an incredible variety of vacation trips—a week in a spaceship, a raft ride down the Amazon, a dogsled run across Antarctica, a voyage through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (our choice).
Nothing at Metrodome Universe costs a great deal—an average of $35. a day per couple for everything. This is because all stadium-related TEE attractions are basically come-ons designed to attract a full-house crowd to the stadium every day.
Fans have become very reluctant to attend games in person. Partly, it is the sheer electronic wonder and fun that staying home offers, but there are other reasons, too. In 1991 it cost a family of four an average of $83 to attend a single baseball game in Chicago. That, plus traffic tangles, late hours and increasing numbers of hooligan drunks in the stands, eventually turned most of the country against entering a stadium. Of course, televised games played against backdrops of empty seats are terrible for the image of any sport. Thus, spectators had to be lured back.
Inexpensive TEE attractions help, but other incentives are needed. Today, the wife and I are going to a Twins-Indians game in the Metrodome, and on Sunday we will attend the Vikings-Bears contest. We will be paid for our appearances at both games—$20 each for baseball, $50 each for football. This is all part of the Professional Spectator Program (PSP). Participants in PSP are not selected at random or on a first-come, first-served basis. There are demographic and aesthetic balances to be maintained. We have to fill out questionnaires on religion, skin color, ethnic roots and what color clothing we will wear to the game before we are accepted and paid our admission fees.
We get the standard pay because we are classified as Average Backdrop Types (ABT). More Colorful Types (MCT)—people with funny slogans scrawled on bed sheets or with war paint on their faces—receive substantially higher fees for attending. A few Super Colorful Types (SCT)—such as a guy in Baltimore who dresses like John the Baptist and an enormously fat green-haired woman who runs onto the field to kiss coach Mike Ditka after every Chicago Bears game—have agents who negotiate their contracts and are paid as much as $5,000 a game.
The World Series is already over. The Pittsburgh Pirates swept the Kansas City Royals in 11 straight games of the best-of-21 series. With such a short Series held in baseball's two smallest TV markets, Major League Baseball took a bath.
I didn't much like either team and I used my revolutionary new Home Invective system pretty often. Home Invective is an inexpensive ($1 a game) state-of-the-art spectator involvement program, exclusive to baseball. Any advice, insults or obscenities fans yell at their TV screen are automatically and immediately piped into the crowd noise at the stadium. The volume of Home Invective can be adjusted from the lowest decibels, called Conscientious Objection, to the highest, called Leather Lung. Baseball's Home Invective makes a joke of the NFL's wimpy Dial-an-Encouraging-Word program, which charges $2 to tape an upbeat five-second message that will be piped into the Vikes' locker room before the game.
The year 2002 is minutes away. I am watching the celebration in Times Square and the time has come for New Year's resolutions. O.K.: I resolve to study my Video Viking Playbook every night to speed up my Common Huddle play-calling reaction time. I resolve to use Leather Lung no more than once a game. I resolve to cut back on my $1 long-shot Tele-Tout bets with Robo-Bookie from one a day to one a week, and I resolve not to watch anymore CIPBM. On second thought, no I don't. Happy New Year!