White Sox History: The story of SportsVision

This...is...SportsVision! - The Museum of Classic Chicago Television - FuzzyMemories.TV

A look back at how the White Sox tried to make money off of cable TV before everybody else.

Fox Sports is reportedly willing to pay $6 billion to $8 billion dollars to broadcast Los Angeles Dodgers games over the next couple of decades. Fox is already paying $3 billion to air Los Angles Angels of Anaheim games through 2030. According to FanGraphs, Comcast Houston is paying $3 billion dollars to run Astros games for the next 20 years.

The White Sox get $450,000 for each game on Comcast SportsNet. CSN ran 101 Sox games. That means in 2012, the Sox took in nearly $45 million from Comcast alone. No word on what WGN pays the White Sox to run games on WGN-TV or WCIU. If Comcast wanted to lock in the Sox for the next couple of decades, they would pay $1.4 billion for the privilege.

For a baseball franchise, TV deals are the latest gold mine.

White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn saw the potential over 30 years ago. He knew there was money in cable TV, and he wanted the White Sox to reap that whirlwind before everyone else. TV contracts, along with luxury suites and other premium goodies, were the wave of the future.

The end result was SportsVision, a much maligned pay-TV entity (it wasn't quite a cable channel) that some blame for permanently tilting the Chicago baseball axis towards Clark and Addison. But SportsVision wasn't quite the disaster that people make it out to be. In fact, it was visionary.

Today, Jerry Reinsdorf is "The Chairman." He's the undisputed boss of the White Sox and the Bulls. When he bought the Sox in 1981, he got second billing next to Einhorn, the boisterous former head of CBS Sports. Jerry and Eddie were the Sunshine Boys. Jerry would run the business side of the White Sox, and Eddie would run the baseball side.

Part of the baseball side, Einhorn concluded, was renegotiating the team's TV contracts. 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. Channels 2,5,7 and 11 weren't going to blow out network programming for White Sox baseball. All that remained were lower-powered UHF stations like WSNS, WCIU, and WFLD, and they weren't in the position to pay a ton of money for baseball (WCIU was essentially a public access station. If you had the bucks, you could run a TV show of your very own. That's why 26 could have an eclectic lineup that included "The Warren Freiberg Show" and "Eddie Kurosa's Polka Party").

After all, it was 1981, and if you wanted to watch a game on Channel 44, you had to turn the top dial on the TV to "U" before turning the bottom dial to "44." Ancient times, I know.

In October of 1981, Einhorn announced his concept: SportsVision. It was a separate pay-TV service that would allow subscribers to watch Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Sting soccer games. The scrambled signal would be broadcast by WPWR-TV, which was Channel 60. You see, Chicago wasn't wired for cable in the early 80's. The first cable systems arrived in Chicago in 1984. The whole city would be wired by 1988.

Columnists, like the Tribune's Dave Condon, ripped Einhorn for forcing the fans to pay for something that had previously been free. To soften the blow, Einhorn used the SportsVision news conference to announce the team had signed Greg Luzinski to a long term contract.

Eddie Einhorn had the ability to get a brand new sports channel off the ground. Einhorn made his money by founding TVS, a regional sports network that broadcast college sports. After cashing out of TVS, Einhorn became the head of CBS Sports. He knew how to make money off of sports on TV.

According to Tribune TV critic Ron Alridge, the SportsVision math "will have them drooling in other major league cities." 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.

The lack of subscribers hurt. SportsVision had to hire studio technicians, rent studio facilities, broadcast gear, and all sorts of other things that would typically be the responsibility of a TV station. On top of that, SportsVision had to find programming that would fill the hours when a Chicago sports team was not playing. Einhorn was in discussions to turn SV into a regional network that would include the Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, and Kansas City Royals.

In late 1983, the Sox got out of the TV business. SportsVision merged with ON-TV, which would allow people in Chicago to watch the games. Cablevision returned to the picture, airing SportsVision on cable systems outside of Chicago. The Trib estimated SportsVision "lost $7 million in its 19 months of existence." But those losses were wiped out by the $8 million merger with ON-TV and Cablevision.

As Einhorn said at the time, "The route we're taking may be a little different, but that doesn't mean we're not going to do what we originally intended to do: make money." The Sox still owned a piece of SportsVision, but it wasn't going to be the fountain of money Einhorn expected.

SportsVision wasn't a complete disaster. But it was a learning experience. The Sox discovered it could not completely control the distribution of their product. They could not get enough subscribers to cover the production costs.

Let's clear up another myth. SportsVision did not kill White Sox attendance. 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.

SportsVision morphed into SportsChannel in 1989. It became Fox Sports Net Chicago in 1997. The corporate successor to SportsVision folded for good in 2006, two years after the Sox, Blackhawks, and Bulls decamped to Comcast SportsNet.

There are a lot of reasons as to why the Cubs consistently outdraw the Sox ... but a long dead TV channel isn't one of them. It's time to give SportsVision and Eddie Einhorn their due.

They were ahead of their time.

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