SPORTS

Ball-park figures

U.S. TV networks pay for baseball errors

JAMES DEACON October 21 1991
SPORTS

Ball-park figures

U.S. TV networks pay for baseball errors

JAMES DEACON October 21 1991

Ball-park figures

U.S. TV networks pay for baseball errors

SPORTS

For sports enthusiasts, October is the month when baseball is in bloom. On autumn evenings, baseball lovers can curl up before a warm TV to watch the league championships, followed by the World Series—as many as 21 games in all. This year, the intensity of the fans’ fervor was measured by the decibel level in stadiums in Toronto and Minneapolis, and in Pittsburgh and Atlanta—the home cities of this year’s American and National League pennant contenders. But the enthusiasm generated by followers of the Minnesota Twins, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves did not help to soothe the fiscal misery of the U.S. networks that cover the game. New York Citybased CBS and ESPN, the sports network based in Bristol, Conn., are estimated to have lost nearly $300 million in the first two years of their joint fouryear deal to broadcast Major League Baseball. And because teams in the populous New York and California markets failed to make this year’s playoffs, CBS, the exclusive rights holder for postseason play, had no major market to offer its advertisers.

Said Andy MacPhail, the Twins’ general manager: “It is fair to say that we were not the network’s first choice for playoff teams.”

The plight of the U.S. networks was reflected in the fact that the first game of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) between the Twins and the Blue Jays received a U.S. television rating by the A. C. Nielsen Co., which estimates TV audience share, of only 11.6—the worst rating ever for a playoff baseball game. The U.S. ratings did not take into account the 2.7 million Canadians who tuned in to the first ALCS game—which the Twins won 5-4—on CTV, the Canadian television rights holder. CBS did better on the first National League championship game between Pittsburgh and Atlanta, drawing a 14 rating, up 15 per cent from the 12.2 the network scored for the first National League championship game last year.

What the network red ink means, according to TV industry executives, is that CBS and ESPN paid too much for the baseball rights. In bidding against the other two major U.S. networks, New York-based ABC and NBC, CBS agreed to pay $1.2 billion in 1988 for its share of the fouryear baseball deal beginning in 1990, about

$456 million more than the next-highest offer, by ABC. CBS lost a reported $114 million on baseball in 1990 and asked Major League Baseball to renegotiate the deal. When the major leagues declined, the network trimmed its 1991 postseason production budget by eliminating half-hour pre-game shows and reducing the number of cameras compared with last

year—to 11 from 12 in the league playoffs, and to 13 from 14 in World Series games.

The deal has also squeezed ESPN, which lost an estimated $40 million on baseball in 1990. Michael Soltys, the network’s program information manager, told Maclean ’s that his company’s $456-million deal with baseball was not financially successful because it was not exclusive. He said that ESPN’s six-game-per-week schedule competes with local broadcasts, and fans in Seattle, for example, are unlikely to watch a national broadcast of a Houston-Cincinnati game when they can watch their local team on another channel.

TV industry experts say that another problem with the baseball deal was its timing. It coincided with the onset of the recent recession and with what networks on both sides of the border

now admit was an overestimation of sports viewership and potential advertising revenue. “We are hurting all over,” said a CTV official who requested anonymity. “We have only sold about 30 per cent of our [1992] Summer Olympics package for Barcelona.”

In Canada, CTV benefited from Toronto’s presence in the American League pennant race. The Toronto-based broadcaster is in the second year of a three-year contract for Canadian rights to CBS’s playoff and World Series coverage. The deal allows CTV to replace American advertising with commercial time it sells to its Canadian clients. According to Susan Cutajar, sports publicist for CTV, the 1990 ALCS drew an average of 860,000 Canadian viewers, while this year, in the first playoff game featuring the Blue Jays, the audience grew to 2.7 million. Cutajar said that 30-second advertising spots during the playoffs were selling for $15,000 to $18,000, and would sell for

$25,000 to $30,000 for a World Series that included the Blue Jays.

Despite missing the big markets, CBS still drew a considerable audience thanks to the appeal of the U.S.-based teams that vied for berths in this year’s World Series. Atlanta and Minnesota won many hearts for their dramatic climb from last-place finishers in 1990 to division winners in 1991. Pittsburgh, with its outstanding outfield led by Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke, was regarded by many baseball experts as the sport’s best team, and the Blue Jays captured a huge following in Canada. Baseball may not be able to keep up with the dollar demands of the networks, but it is still capable of thrilling its fans.

JAMES DEACON