For the love of the game

Baseball's most visible fan discusses the relationship between sports on the field and on the air

When it comes to TV sports, no one is more familiar with the ins and outs of the business than Bob Costas. The longtime NBC Sports anchor and play-by-play man is never one to hold back a thought or an opinion on almost everything on and off the playing field. Costas, who was just nominated for another Sports Emmy Award for best in-studio host, nearly came to blows with WWF chief Vince McMahon last month on his new HBO sports talk show On the Record.

Costas, who spearheaded NBC's Summer Olympics coverage from Sydney, is only weeks away from working NBC's NBA-playoff coverage and will once again host NBC's Olympics coverage-next winter from Salt Lake City. He has also written a number of books, including Fair Ball, in which he suggests solutions for Major League Baseball's current economic woes. He talked with BROADCASTING & CABLE's Joe Schlosser last week about television's influence-both good and bad-on professional sports.

In your book Fair Ball, you discuss what has gone wrong with baseball. How much blame should be put on the television industry, if any?

Television's position, by and large, is amoral here. They make an investment, and their concern is only for the term of that investment-four years, five years, six years.

When people say TV dictates the late start times of baseball games, especially in playoffs and World Series, that's false. Television says, if you want this much in rights fees, this is what we have to have in order to get at least some of that back in advertising revenue.

It's up to baseball to protect the integrity of its own game and to consider what the long-range implications are of having its supposedly most important and memorable moments taking place at midnight in a good portion of the country.

So, indirectly, I think, TV has had an effect on the way baseball is presented and perceived. But it's up to the people who run baseball to steer that according to their own designs, and I don't think they have had enough foresight when it comes to that.

Do you really believe Fox or NBC would pay millions to have an all-afternoon World Series?

If you say to the networks, this is baseball and a certain number of games are going to be in the afternoon, they would absolutely still want it. They would want it at somewhat different dollar levels, but those dollar levels would still be significant.

Baseball has constantly found itself in a real or perceived economic crisis, so its motivation always is the largest short-term revenue grab, no matter how much the game is distorted to do it. And until the economic crisis is eased, all of the baseball-related decisions are going to be made in that atmosphere of desperation. That's why they can't get things straight on playoff formats, on post-season start times and on interleague play. All of these things are done in a slap-dash fashion for short-term revenue grabs.

You are a proponent of revenue sharing in baseball. How should TV contracts be dished out if the league were to implement such an economic plan?

That's the other part about television that is a major issue. No matter how well run the Kansas City franchise is or, for that matter, a bigger city like St. Louis, there's no way they can match the local broadcast revenue of a New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. It's just impossible.

So what I propose is that, in addition to dividing all of the network revenue equally, which they currently do, each team should keep half of its local broadcast revenue-over-the-air, cable and radio. Keep half. If you generate $100 million, you keep $50 million. Then $50 million goes into a major-league pool. If you generate $10 million, you keep $5 million, and $5 million goes into a pool. That pool is then divided the same way as the network TV money is divided: not as a handout where the Pittsburghs get more than the New Yorks. They all get the same 30th of it.

What would another strike do to baseball?

I think it's more likely to be a lockout than a strike. I think almost certainly, no matter the merits of either side's position, the immediate reaction from most fans and most of the press will be, "A pox on both their houses: I hate all of them, I hate the game now, and I'll never come back to the sport. They were lucky to survive the first one." That will be the reaction.

But the truth is that, if a lockout is part of an enlightened strategy by the owners and it is a last resort after presenting the players with a reasonable plan to reform baseball's economics and the players are not willing to compromise ... if a result of the lockout is that the owners succeed in significantly reforming baseball's economics, then I don't think that's a bad thing at all.

What would be disastrous would be if they have a lockout, they miss a significant portion of the 2002 season and, in the end, they don't accomplish anything. That would be devastating.

Switching gears, you called the Summer Olympics in Australia. Did you expect the low national ratings that NBC received?

I knew it would be much lower than the Atlanta games for a variety of obvious reasons. Atlanta was a domestic Olympics, so much of it we were able to do live or on a short tape-delayed basis, whereas the Sydney games were on a significant tape delay. And not only that, but, in the intervening four years, cable TV had exploded. The Internet had exploded. So the effect of a taped Olympics was more dramatic in 2000 than it would have been in past Olympics.

Plus, something that is often overlooked was that this was a September Olympics, not the July or August Summer Olympics that we used to do. So a lot of people weren't on vacation, and the kids were back in school. I think what is almost certain to happen is that the 2002 Salt Lake games will show a bounce back in the ratings, probably not to 1996 levels but a significant bounce back. In February, HUT levels are higher, and much of it can be shown live.

What's going on with the NBA? What do you think is going to come of TV's next basketball package, because NBC's deal is up after this season?

I think NBC would very much like to be back in. Obviously, the NBA is still an attractive property, although it may never reach Michael Jordan levels again. And it wasn't just Jordan. That was on the heels of Bird, Magic, Dr. J, Kareem and all of the rest. But the NBA is still an attractive property, and I'm sure that there will be a lot of interest from other networks in the NBA.

How about the WNBA?

The WNBA has made some inroads, it has a fan base, it's a viable league. As long as success is not defined by enormous television ratings and the front page of the sports section of USA Today ... if that's the definition of success, it will be a long time before that is reached. But if the definition of success is to take a league, start from scratch, have a fan base and put out a pretty good product that continues to get better, then I think it has been successful.

Isn't that true for the XFL?

They've tried to start a league, and, up until now, it appears the public is not buying it.

Do you think NBC should drop the XFL?

I have no stand. I think they will make a business decision. Right now, the indicators are not good for the league.