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Chicagoist Weekend Theater: Sportsvision—The Television Concept Ahead Of Its Time

By Chuck Sudo in News on Sep 8, 2013 7:00PM


Jerry Reinsdorf is seen today as the undisputed chairman of the Chicago White Sox. But when he and Eddie Einhorn bought the team, the two shared equal billing and split the responsibilities of running the ballclub: Reisndorf handled the team's business affairs; Einhorn the baseball operations.

One of the items on Einhorn's to-do list was renegotiating the club's television contracts. From the indispensable South Side Sox:

In 1980, WSNS-TV 44 paid the Sox $3,000 per game. That was the lowest in Major League Baseball, and far behind the $5 million the Yankees were getting from WPIX-TV. Bill Veeck and prospective owner Ed DeBartolo had letters of understanding with WGN-TV and Cablevision, which had a fledgling cable sports channel in New York (called SportsChannel). Cablevision would broadcast most home games, and all road games would wind up on the Old Number Nine. Unfortunately, Cablevision was only available to cable subscribers in Homewood and Oak Park. But they promised to be in more homes by the end of 1981.

One of the first things Einhorn did after taking control of the club was to scuttle the Cablevision deal. In return, WGN would broadcast more Sox home games. Even so, Einhorn wasn't happy, saying that the Sox "didn't see a dime" from WGN. By June of '81, Einhorn was floating the idea of putting Sox home games back on pay-TV. He was in talks with ON-TV, a service that allowed subscribers to watch a scrambled over-the-air signal through a decoder box. The Sox were no stranger to pay-TV. Veeck threw a couple of Sox games on ON-TV the year before.

He wanted to cut out the middleman. In Chicago, he said, the Sox couldn't get a fair shake. WGN was the only independent VHF television station in town, and the Cubs had priority.

Einhorn, a former head of CBS Sports who earned his reputation syndicating the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament on radio, and created one of the early regional sports networks with TVS Television Network, decided to form Sportsvision with Resindorf and media bigwig Fred Eychaner.

Sportsvision aired White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks and Chicago Sting soccer games on WPWR-TV. Only subscribers, however, could only view the games if they had a special decoder box and paid a monthly subscription fee of $15 - $21 per month.

Einhorn boasted about the numbers he projected the service would generate at the same press conference arranged to announce the signing of Greg Luzinski—those numbers never materialized.

Again, from South Side Sox:

Subscribers would pay $15 to $21 for a SportsVision box (ON-TV subscribers had the cheaper rate). That was just in Chicago. SportsVision would be a premium cable channel on suburban and outlying cable systems. Forty to fifty games would remain on free TV, broadcast on Channel 32.

There was only one problem: SportsVision subscriptions weren't up to snuff. Einhorn said he needed 30,000 subscribers by Opening Day of 1982 to make money; 21,000 homes and 100 businesses were wired for SportsVision by September of '82. Instead of making money for the Sox, SportsVision was a money sink, losing up to $300,000 per month.

Einhorn's miscalculation on Sportsvision resulted in a domino effect many believe resulted in the Cubs' rise as the more popular baseball team in town. Because most of the games were broadcast on Sportsvision (WFLD-TV aired 40-50 games) Einhorn, Reinsdorf and Eychaner had to invest in the necessary infrastructure to produce the broadcasts.

Then-Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who was already getting heat from Sox players for criticizing their performance during broadcasts, recognized the Sportsvision concept would effectively kill his audience with the Sox.

Following the 1981 season, Caray signed with WGN-TV and was primed to become a national treasure as the station became a national cable television superpower, broadcasting Cubs games into homes across the country for free.

Caray's partner-in-crime in the Sox broadcast booth, Jimmy Piersall, continued his no-nonsense talk, became embroiled in a feud with Sox manager Tony LaRussa and was shunted off to general broadcasting duties on Sportsvision (the Sox hired Don Drysdale and Ken "Hawk" Harrelson as their new broadcast team) before being fired by Reinsdorf. Piersall sued for breach of contract and a judge found in favor of Reinsdorf and Einhorn.

The Sox wound up jettisoning Sportsvision in 1983 after racking up $7 million in losses in 19 months. The network was purchased by Cablevision and ON-TV for $8 million, so Einhorn didn't completely lose his shirt on the concept. With Chicago finally began the process of getting wired for cable in 1984, Sportsvision was added as a regular cable channel, but it still didn't have the national reach of WGN.

Sportsvision was seen as a failure back then but, as South Side Sox notes, it may have been ahead of its time. Einhorn and Reinsdorf realized they couldn't control the distribution of the team's games.

Sports leagues, however, could and today we see each of the major sports leagues in North America in control of their own networks available on cable and satellite networks and, except for the NFL, available for streaming online.

Sportsvision can also be seen as a precursor to on-demand television, which an increasing number of providers and networks are exploring as a new revenue stream in a wide-open digital frontier. Major football conferences and the NCAA have even gotten aboard this train, with lucrative broadcasting agreements with the major networks and ESPN

Just don't say Sportsvision helped widen the attendance divide between Wrigley Field and the ballparks at 35th and Shields.

The Sox averaged 19,319 fans in the pre-SportsVision year of 1981. In SportsVision's inaugural year of 1982, the Sox drew 19,355 per game, and that was partially due a cold winter that stretched into May.

The Sox set a Chicago baseball attendance record in 1983, and actually outdrew the playoff-bound Cubs in 1984 (by 19,000 fans). A respectable 1.6 million walked into Comiskey in 1985 (on par with 1977 and the post-World Series year of 1960). Bad baseball, bad blood over the threat to move to Tampa, and the perception of a less-than-friendly neighborhood conspired to wipe out Sox attendance for the rest of the decade. The Sox wouldn't see 2 million fans again until 1990.

Below is a White Sox game against the Oakland A's from September 7, 1983. Spoiler alert: The Sox won 8-7 in 10 innings.