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CABLE TV MAY PLAY HUGE ROLE IN BIG-LEAGUE QUEST

WE ALL HAVE read that cable TV is important in Buffalo's bid for a major league baseball team.

Douglas Danforth, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates and head of the expansion committee, said so last week when the criteria of ownership, demographics, and a stadium were also mentioned.

What we don't know is why cable TV is important.

Many people assumed it was important to give ESPN, which now carries major league games on four nights a week, more interested fans.

Wrong.

"It has nothing to do with national TV at all," said Danforth in a telephone interview.

Of course, national TV revenue is shared. Local TV and radio revenue is not.

Danforth said that "the local television, radio and cable market would be important from the standpoint of what revenues local ownership might expect to generate.

"The one thing we want to make certain of, as much as we can, is the new expansion teams succeed."

With pay-per-view possibly on the horizon, cable TV is important because of the rights fees it can pay clubs to carry games. That money will help the team sign more players and be competitive.

"Let us take a city whose potential revenue from all those sources -- local radio, local free TV and cable TV -- is $1 million or $2 million," said Danforth. "That franchise would have trouble making it."

Although major league baseball doesn't expect a new franchise to get the $500 million, multi-year cable contract George Steinbrenner gets for the New York Yankees, it needs a respectable broadcasting figure.

"Very few have $40 million a year like Steinbrenner, but a lot of us get $5 million, $6 million, $7 million, $8 million, in that range," explained Danforth.

Apparently, Bob Rich Jr. has to show that the Bisons can generate enough broadcasting revenue in the No. 38 television market to be competitive on and off the field. Orlando (No. 25), St. Petersburg (No. 17) and Denver (No. 19), which are in larger and arguably more affluent television markets than Buffalo, have to do likewise.

A city's market size and its demographics are important because the bigger and more affluent the market, the more advertising dollars are spent. And the more advertising dollars that are generated, the higher the rights fees for games.

The Buffalo Bills often have complained that they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to local broadcasting revenue. But the National Football League doesn't rely heavily on local broadcast revenue and the Bills have been able to offset that disadvantage with record ticket sales. If Rich can't sell his TV argument to the league, perhaps he can relate the Bills history.

Rich certainly knows the local broadcasting scene and what it can afford to pay. His family owns WGR-AM, which carries the Bisons games.

His family also owns 10.46 percent of the Buffalo Sabres. As vice chairman of the Sabres board of directors, he also is familiar with their TV history.

When the local network affiliates passed on their games, the Sabres bought their own station, Channel 49, to put them on broadcast television.

The Sabres also have established a regional sports network for their cable games. Presumably, it is the Sabres' network that Rich was alluding to when he was quoted as saying the six-county area that makes up our prime market has 720,000 homes with cable. He said that makes Western New York the fifth or sixth market rather than the 38th.

I asked Danforth if Rich's arithmetic was impressive.

"When he makes his presentation all of that is relevant," said Danforth. "From that, he can generate a forecast of an income source. Not fabricated, but realistic."

Rich could try to produce the cable games himself or sell them to a regional sports network, such as SportsChannel or Prime. The more cable subscribers there are, the higher the rights fees.

The Bisons might be prevented from going into surrounding cable TV areas that are considered the markets of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toronto and the New York Mets and Yankees.

It is clear the Bisons will have to do considerably better in TV rights fees than the Sabres have been doing. It is believed the Sabres get about $1 million a year in local cable rights fees. They paid themselves for broadcast rights fees for games on Channel 49. Channel 2 paid about $600,000 a year when they carried the games.

Comparing the two teams and sports, however, may be like comparing apples and oranges.

The Sabres' one TV advantage is their game is played during the winter when more viewers are in front of their sets.

On the Bisons' TV side is the fact that baseball -- not hockey -- is our national pastime. They also play twice as many games as the Sabres, which gives them twice as many TV opportunities.

A package of Bisons' games might be attractive to one of the three network affiliates. Channel 29, which will be partially owned by the Sabres, is almost certain to be interested.

The Big Three affiliates might be reluctant to pre-empt network programming in April and May, but June, July and August are slow TV months that would be perfect for local major league baseball.

Games on a network affiliate would generate a larger audience than cable or Channel 29 and presumably attract a greater rights fee.
Major league baseball has changed its ESPN blackout rules concerning the Cleveland Indians. An ESPN spokesman said that Indians games they carry that are also on Cleveland's regional pay service can not be shown in Buffalo. SportsChannel carries 45 Cleveland games.
He's baaaaack. Brent Musburger will be coming to you live on Monday for the first time on ABC to host the first annual "All-Star Sports Awards" at 9 p.m. on Channel 7.

Oh, no, Brent is becoming Howard Cosell. This is Brent's version of the "Battle of the Network Stars."

He'll share the spotlight with comedian Richard Lewis, who is the master of ceremonies.

Winners in this bogus competition will be selected by ballots already cast or by calling a 900 telephone number. There also will be highlights of the year's best and worst moments in sports and the year's biggest bloopers.

The nominees for baseball are Will Clark, Jose Canseco, Nolan Ryan and Bo Jackson.

Bo Jackson? He is being booed in Kansas City.

In boxing, the nominees are Buster Douglas, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Leonard hasn't fought a good fight in years and Tyson became mortal this year when Douglas KO'd him.

But my favorite category is men's golf, where Greg Norman is competing with three legends -- Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus.

Whoever is running this contest obviously has a sense of humor.

After this, the World League of American Football will look like a prestigious event to Brent.

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