The Legacy of SportsVision

The Legacy of SportsVision
The SportsVision logo. SportsVision was a premium television channel founded by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn in 1982. (The Museum of Classic Chicago Television)

Last season FanGraphs had a sobering article talking about regional / local television viewership when it comes to baseball. It was sobering because in the categories the story discussed and the graphs they presented in it, the White Sox were ranked last in the major leagues in viewership. That’s hard to believe in some ways given the size of the Chicago market and the area CSN Chicago covers. One would think smaller markets like Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Cleveland or even Houston because of the issues they’ve been having with their regional provider would have fewer viewers but such is not the case, at least if you believe FanGraphs.

On one level it makes sense. The White Sox haven’t had a winning season since 2012, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 and they haven’t had consecutive winning seasons since 2003 through 2006. But to find the root causes of the Sox decline in television viewership and their overall impact in the market since the end of the “Golden Age” (1951-1967) you have to go back 47 years to when they left WGN originally and then, more importantly, back some 33 years when SportsVision was formed.

We’re going to tell you about SportsVision “Chicago’s Winners on Cable.” What it was, who started it, why it didn’t work and the consequences of it. As you read this you’ll be getting a history of televised baseball in Chicago through the years, the development of the cable and satellite industries, the changing landscape of how sports is delivered into your home and the friction and ego’s that came out in full force between the Sox owners and then main announcer Harry Caray.

SportsVision : The Background

Let’s start with the basics of SportsVision. It was the idea of Sox co-owner, president, and longtime television executive Eddie Einhorn. The purpose was to become the first real “pay” television channel in the country, which would deliver a number of sports events to a particular area, in this case Chicago. It would also deliver what for the time, would have been monster profit margins to the owners of the White Sox and in theory increased interest in the team because it would limit the number of games available on commercial or "free" TV.

Einhorn was one of the most knowledgeable and shrewd men in television sports. In the early 60s he came up with the idea of "regional" college basketball networks. The idea was that schools would sell their broadcasting rights to a central source, in this case the TVS Network. That network was associated with eccentric and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes who put up the money for equipment and production. Einhorn’s idea was that schools would sell TVS the right to show their games. Then he went out and sold those games to independent TV stations around the nation, which were looking to fill broadcasting time and thought the way to do it was with sports.

The idea was a tremendous success giving schools like Notre Dame, UCLA, DePaul, Marquette and others the ability to get their games shown around the nation which not only helped recruiting efforts, but also gave alumni in different areas the chance to see their former college play.

In fact it was Einhorn who put college basketball on the TV map in 1968, with his landmark effort in airing UCLA, then with Lew Alcindor, against the University of Houston and their star Elvin Hayes. That contest marked the first time a college basketball game was televised nationally in prime time. The game has since been referred to as “the Game of the Century.”

In marking the momentous occasion, TVS had the game moved to the gigantic Houston Astrodome, which erupted after the Cougars upset the Bruins 71-69 snapping their 47 game winning streak. That was the genesis for what is now known as March Madness, the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, played in cavernous stadiums with most of the games at night. That game also made a local Los Angeles TV broadcaster a star. Dick Enberg, best known only in Southern California as the voice of the Rams and Angels, called that game, and it was the catalyst for a career which still continues today.

Einhorn was the inventor, and main producer of the weekend "CBS Sports Spectacular" series which brought fans such memorable shows as Brent Musberger calling the "World’s Strongest Man Competition" in the 1970's.

Einhorn also was the driving force in getting the short-lived World Football League televised through the same TVS Network and numerous independent stations and for many years he was part of Major League Baseball’s television committee.

In short he knew the broadcasting business. He was appalled when he got a look at the White Sox TV deal. In 1980, Bill Veeck signed a deal with Charles Dolan of Cablevision, an East Coast company that was getting into the cable TV market. The two year deal payed the Sox $6,000 per game, WGN also got the rights to show 60 Sox road games a season. The total worth of the deal to the Sox was only $840,000 a year. Dolan was a very sharp operator who took Veeck to the cleaners. Veeck, like most old time owners, felt that television was nice to have, but the real way to make money in baseball was at the gate.

Einhorn overturned the deal and came up with the idea for SportsVision which became a reality in May 1982. The idea was to get Chicago sports fans to sign up for the service which would provide a steady diet of White Sox games (primarily home games) along with the Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Sting, a soccer team.The channel would be provided by local and area cable services as a premium service. At the time of launching, it cost most fans $50 just to get it installed as it required a special descrambler, not counting the monthly fee which varied from system to system.

The idea proved to be a failure as the original target of 50,000 subscribers was never met. Even during the playoff  season of 1983 the subscriber base was far short of the original goal. The Sox claimed to have 30,000 subscribers but Bob Logan in his book, "Miracle On 35th Street," says the actual total was closer to 20,000.

Einhorn then wanted to change the service to a true pay-per-view, option and charge $3 per game to watch, but that never became a reality. Eventually SportsVision was sold off to Dolan and Cablevision and changed into SportsChannel - Chicago (part of a group of regional sports channels) which then was absorbed by Rupert Murdoch and his Fox Broadcasting Company and changed into Fox Sports Chicago (which was part of the nationwide blanket of Fox regional sports affiliates). Eventually that regional network became what it is today, Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

What Went Wrong?

Frankly a lot of things. To get to the root of the problem, you have to go back in time to look at the history of Chicago televised baseball.

White Sox games first appeared on TV in Chicago courtesy of WGN in 1948. Jack Brickhouse and Harry Creighton were the first announcers. WGN quickly saw the appeal of televising both the Sox and Cubs as a means of filling air time and drawing advertising into the new medium. They did this with great success all through the 1950s. But broadcasting in those days was far different from today. Broadcast signals had to be relayed over large land lines at a very expensive cost. Microwave relays and transmitters, along with Earth orbiting satellites were still the dreams of science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke. WGN found out that the best way to maximize their profit was to televise as close to Chicago as possible, so they showed home games. WGN poured most of their resources into doing just this because they didn’t have to pay so much for long distance transmission costs.

By 1962 WGN was televising every Sox home day game (with 18 road night ones). In 1964 they showed 64 total Sox games (13 road ones). The Cubs slate was about the same, meaning that Chicago was unique among all baseball towns by having so many games on "free" TV. In no other city, including New York, were so many games, particularly home games being shown.

The Sox left WGN for "greener" pastures after the 1967 season. They signed on with WFLD and the number of televised games exploded. By 1972, 129 games, both home and road were being shown. 125 Sox games were being shown locally in 1973.

These totals also don’t reflect the few additional games that the Sox appeared on the national Saturday “NBC Game of The Week" package. WGN kept pace by showing roughly the same number of Cub games.

By the time Einhorn came up with his idea of moving the Sox off of free TV in May 1982, Chicagoans were conditioned like no other city, to getting virtually the entire baseball season for nothing. The bottom line was that when the Sox announced what they intended to do, they were met with a bunch of angry fans who rightly or wrongly expected the right to get virtually an unlimited number of games for nothing.

Add to that anger was the fact that the nation, especially Chicago, was going through an economic recession, not seen since the early 70s. People were out of work and simply could not afford the hook-up fee, let alone the monthly charge to get the sports programming.

The idea of pay-per-view or cable TV was also in its infancy. HBO (started by Dolan) came into existence in 1972 and just turned ten years old. ESPN began operations on September 7, 1979 with George Grande (who left to become the primary Reds TV broadcaster from 1993 through 2009) and Lee Leonard as the first hosts of SportsCenter. The idea of an advanced, relatively cheap national or regional television channel devoted to sports was a difficult idea to grasp. The technology wasn’t fully developed yet either, from satellites which provided crystal clear digital picture and sound, to the graphics and statistics needed in the important production aspect of showing sports events.

Einhorn’s idea was brilliant, but the timing was wrong.

If SportsVision had come along even five years later, its chances for success would have been much greater. If the idea had first been conceived in a baseball crazy market like Detroit, Baltimore or St. Louis and worked, it would have been easier to accept. For that matter, if Chicago was simply a one team town, it probably would have worked because fans wouldn’t have had any choices. In Chicago though, the Cubs were still offering fans their games for nothing. which added to the resentment felt by Sox fans. For the most part an entire generation of baseball fans in Chicago grew up without watching or being able to watch a number of Sox games every season during the 1980s.

Committing "Harry Caray"

But one more problem developed because of the SportsVision idea which had long term negative effects towards the Sox. That involved popular announcer Harry Caray. Caray had been with the Sox since 1971 and had developed a tremendous following. In many desolate years Caray was the only reason to pay any attention to the Sox. His style was aggressive, he wasn’t afraid to pan the players or for that matter rip the owners. Caray wasn’t a saint by any means, he had a tremendous ego himself and could be spiteful towards those he didn’t care for - like fellow announcer J.C. Martin, whom Caray felt had no business being in a television booth - but to Sox fans he was the best asset the team had.

When Einhorn and his partner Jerry Reinsdorf took over the Sox, Caray became intolerable to them. Einhorn is quoted in Logan’s book as saying, "we were a freak show. The fans thought Harry and Jimmy (Piersall) were the stars. Things were insane."

Caray for his part, kept his personal feelings about the new owners and his relationship with them to himself, until the ties were severed between them. Afterwards he made no bones about how he felt, saying in his autobiography that Sox fans would ask him why he left and why he went to the Cubs. Caray said he loved Sox fans and loved Comiskey Park but he couldn’t stand the owners, going so far as to call them an unflattering name in the book and saying they knew nothing about running a team.

Despite the strained relationship the Sox would have brought Caray back for the 1982 season when he decided to leave and signed a deal with the Cubs. According to producer Noel Gimble, quoting Steve Stone, in his documentary on Caray’s career called, “Hello Again Everybody”  the Sox actually offered to pay Caray more money than he signed on to do the Cubs for.

In Logan’s book, Caray had this to say, "They wanted to sign me again, but with SportsVision, the White Sox are the best kept secret in Chicago. If their games were on free TV, they’d own the town now and be a byword across the nation." (Author’s Note: because of now "Superstation WGN") I gave them some good advice at that contract meeting. I told them, ‘you guys came in as owners with a positive image and became villains by taking Jimmy (Piersall) out of the broadcast booth. Why don’t you get back in the fans’ good graces by putting us back together on the TV team’" Caray continued with Reinsdorf’s reply. "Jerry answered, ‘Harry, I’ll be up in heaven looking down before Piersall broadcasts another one of our games,’ and Einhorn said, ‘with you or without you, the White Sox are going into SportsVision and away from free TV.’"

Logan’s book quotes Caray as saying "that’s when I made up my mind to leave. They were talking about maybe reaching 50,000 homes on pay TV instead of the 22 million people who watch the Cubs on WGN."

The final word in the Caray / Sox owner’s feud came on the night of September 17, 1983. After the Sox clinched the Western Division Championship and before a national audience, since WGN received permission to take the SportsVision feed of the 9th inning and post-game interviews, Reinsdorf issued a final blast. During an interview with "Hawk" Harrelson, Reinsdorf said, ‘wherever you’re at, Harry and Jimmy, eat your hearts out. I hope people realize what scum you are.’ Harrelson was momentarily speechless.

Like him or not, letting Caray leave turned out to be a huge mistake. Caray became the Pied Piper of the North Side and came into the situation just about the time the Wrigleyville neighborhood became trendy with young, upscale individuals who decided going to see the Cubs was the thing to do. The Cubs made the playoffs in 1984 and with their games being shown coast to coast on WGN, fans everywhere who didn’t owe an allegiance to a particular team, seemed to become Cub fans.

The Cubs would ride this wave to become the dominant team in Chicago despite many lousy years on the playing field. They would win the important public relations battle for the hearts and minds of neutral Chicagoans. With fans flocking to see the "shrine" (i.e. Wrigley Field) it didn’t matter if the Cubs won or lost, they were making money hand over foot.

One Man Remembers

Mike Leiderman came to Chicago in the late 70’s working at WMAQ-TV doing sports then went on to host “PM Magazine”.

But his heart was still in sports and when the opportunity came to go to SportsVision as the main anchor (Duane Dow worked weekends) he jumped at it.

“I was talking with a station in Cleveland about hosting a morning show along the lines of what Phil Donahue was doing when SportsVision became an option,” he told me. “Merle Harmon, who did the Milwaukee Brewers for years, was the first anchor but he left and they wanted a replacement. They were paying real money and offered me a good deal so I signed up with them. I was contracted to work 200 days a year for them so that left me opportunities to do play by play and other things. My family and I loved Chicago and we wanted to stay here. It also gave me an opportunity to keep doing what I loved, which was sports. Even though it was new we just didn’t think about not making it. Everyone who worked there realized it was going to be a slow growth process.”

But ownership apparently did not and on December 31, 1983 the plug was pulled on it. It was a group decision to sell back the rights among the owners of SportsVision which included Einhorn, Reinsdorf, Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern and Bill and Arthur Wirtz of the Blackhawks.

Leiderman was asked when employees began to suspect something wasn’t right and issues were developing. “It was about the time we starting seeing ads in newspapers for decoder boxes!” he said laughingly. “Instead of paying for the converter box and the hook- up fees people were just buying those boxes for like 10 dollars and watching at home. It was problematic for us.”

The fact that people were buying those boxes did provide perhaps the most memorable line in the entire SportsVision experience. It came on December 31, 1983 during the final show. Leiderman was hosting with Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn as his guest. Mike looked into the camera and said, “Those who are watching us in the piracy of their homes…” as Einhorn started to laugh. “To this day when I see Eddie he’ll bring up that line”, Mike told me.

Leiderman also was the last person to be on a TV set with Sox announcer Jimmy Piersall who was fired after his on-air comments after the Sox lost opening night in Texas back on April 4, 1983, 5-3.

“Greg Walker started at first that night. He was a rookie then. Texas’ infield was as hard as concrete and he made a few errors and didn’t handle a few other balls that were generously scored as hits. Jimmy and I were back in the studio and we went live between innings. I was setting Jimmy up for his analysis and he was just merciless with his comments. He was ripping Walker, Jerry Reinsdorf, and the Sox organization. I actually went back to the control room and asked ‘what should I do? Should I challenge him? What?’ They said ‘just let him go.’ He was fired the next day.”

Asked if he had any regrets Leiderman said, “No, I don’t regret it. We were the first station in the country devoted totally to our teams, we weren’t at the mercy of anything else, we were different, unique and you look around today and you realize all the regional sports channels started with us. I enjoyed it, worked with great people and it enabled me to stay in Chicago. I’m thankful for that.”

How to sum up the experiment known as SportsVision? Well you could do a lot worse than to say, ‘a brilliant idea that simply was ahead of its time.’

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  • fb_avatar

    Nice article. The Sox move over to UHF in the late 60s also hurt them as the average home TV could not always pull in a clear picture. Plus, at the time, UHF was mostly thought of as the home of professional wrestling and bullfights. It seemed fairly minor league to have a broadcast home there.

  • Harry:

    Glad you enjoyed it. Also hurting the Sox when they moved to WFLD was the fact that most TV sets literally could not get channel 32. TV sets until 1965 only went to channel 14. Either you had to buy a new TV set or you had to buy a converter box to get that channel.

    Hard to think that the Sox never considered / realized this when they made the move although I understand the reasons Art Allyn did so.

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