NBC's TripleCast trouble may cause NFL to rethink pay per view

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They are the three little words that dance in the heads of NFL executives like visions of sugar plums: per pay view.

It has been easy for them to imagine that per pay view could be a bonanza down the road.

The arithmetic is easy. Say 10 million fans were willing to pay $40 to watch the Super Bowl. That'd be $400 million for one game.

There's no trouble coming up with pie-in-the-sky numbers. The trouble is, if NBC's Olympic TripleCast is any indication, it may be all pie in the sky.

The flop of the TripleCast has raised new doubts about the future of pay per view. There may be a limit on what fans are willing to pay for.

The projections once were that 2 million fans would pay $125 to watch the Olympics. The actual numbers may be closer to

200,000, and the promoters have cut the daily price to try to attract more customers.

The spin doctors are now pointing out that the Olympics aren't traditional sports events and that fans can watch the NBC nightly telecast for free.

But the promoters knew all that when they made the original projections.

All this is likely to have major ramifications for the NFL -- the only sport that draws prime-time ratings for regular-season games.

Eighteen months ago, commissioner Paul Tagliabue even predicted the league would experiment with pay per view in 1992 or 1993, but then backed off the idea.

The NFL has promised Congress it will keep the Super Bowl on free TV at least for the rest of the decade. The flop of the TripleCast now makes it seems likely it'll be on free TV a lot longer than that.

Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell said last week the NFL isn't even considering putting the Super Bowl on pay per view TV any time soon.

"I'm not going to recommend giving up 130 million viewers on a Super Bowl Sunday or 60 to 70 million in the playoffs," he said.

He said the NFL may experiment with pay per view after it gets a new TV contract in 1994, but only in addition to what it already shows on free TV.

"Nobody can criticize offering the public more than they're getting if more means paying for it," he said.

The example he uses is showing a Pittsburgh-Cleveland game in Miami for a Clevelander who moves to Miami and would rather pay for that game than watch the Dolphins on free TV.

As far as trying to make a major switch from free TV to pay per view, Modell said, "It won't happen for a long, long time, if ever. I don't think it will ever replace free TV."

It's easy to say that now in view of the flop of the TripleCast. If it had been successful, though, NFL people might be thinking

differently.

The end of the line?

One of the saddest stories of the season may be developing now in San Francisco. Just two weeks after the 49ers were upbeat about the comeback of Joe Montana, there are now whispers that he may not be able to make it back.

The 49ers are trying to downplay the fact that Montana hasn't been able to throw since last Monday when he cut his workout short, complaining of a tired arm and a lack of "zip" in his passes.

"I think we're all on uncharted ground a little bit," coach George Seifert said. "We realize there are going to be highs and lows. I can't really say this is a tremendous setback. We're all kind of working our way through this."

Nobody is officially ready to write off Montana. They've seen him come back too many times.

But it's obvious they're worried. A couple of clubs recently inquired about Steve Young and were told he's not available. If Montana can't play, the 49ers want to have Steve Bono and Young ready.

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The $5 million man

The NFL started to present its case in the antitrust trial in Minneapolis last week and the league's first witness, Tagliabue, immediately ran into a tough cross-examination.

Tagliabue had to concede that his five-year, $5 million deal -- that includes a loan for an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York and a limousine and driver -- is guaranteed. That's a perk virtually no players have. He also conceded he wasn't drafted by a law firm when he came out of college the way players are.

After Tagliabue contended the All-America Conference "folded" because of the dominance of the Cleveland Browns (who were virtually as successful in the NFL as they were in the AAFC), he was forced to concede the league considers it a "merger" because three teams, the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and the Colts, joined the NFL. That undermined his credibility.

Nobody knows how this is playing with the eight-women jury, but there's one sign the league is worried. League officials have been complaining to Associated Press reporters about their dispatches on the trial. Complaining about the media is always a popular diversion for the losing side.

Joe Browne, the league's director of communication, also issued a statement that contended there were media predictions the USFL was going to win its 1986 antitrust case halfway through the trial. "You can ask Donald Trump who won that suit," Browne said.

He was referring to the fact the USFL was awarded only $1 in damages in that trial, but the issues are entirely different this time.

The Legal Times, a Washington-based legal paper, wrote last week, "Given the recent financial success both the NBA and Major League Baseball -- despite their more open free-agency programs -- it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the owners to prove that Plan B is the least restrictive free-agency system available to the NFL."

The paper cautioned, though, "You never know what a jury will do until it does it."

What's the cost?

The legal battle between the two warring factions of the Robbie family was settled out of court after just 90 minutes of testimony last week. The settlement probably means the Robbie family will retain control of the Miami Dolphins.

The most interesting item in the brief trial was a 1989 appraisal of the Dallas Cowboys that listed among future revenues a $5.05 million expansion payment. If you multiply that by 28, you get slightly more than $140 million. That means that in 1989, the league was apparently only planning to charge about $70 million per expansion team. The current estimates now go as high as $150 million, but they may turn out to be too high.

There they go again

When it comes to shooting themselves in the foot, the Colts remain in a class of their own. Donnell Thompson, a defensive lineman who retired at the end of last season to run a pair of McDonald's franchises, said he got a call from assistant general manager Bob Terpening during minicamp. Thompson said he figured Terpening was going to try to talk him into coming out of retirement because of the death of Shane Curry.

Instead, Terpening told him the Colts were fining him foskipping minicamp. Terpening, one of the holdovers from the team's Baltimore days, apparently didn't believe Thompson was retiring because you can't fine retired players.

If Thompson had any doubts about retiring, Terpening's phone call ended them.

An unhappy camper

Alfred Oglesby was in the Miami Dolphins dorm talking on the phone last Monday when he was dragged outside by several teammates.

Nose tackle Shawn Lee picked the phone up and told the female voice on the other end, "Alfred can't come to the phone right now. He's a little tied up."

His teammates then taped Oglesby to a tree. They were retaliating because he overslept and made up a story about being abducted the previous week. The result is that coach Don Shula stopped letting the veterans sleep at home at night during training camp.

He was taped to the tree for about 20 minutes until a sympathetic teammate cut him loose. Oglesby said he "took it like a man."

Lee said he was kicking and swearing. "He took it like a man. Yeah, right," he said.

Shula's reaction to all this? "If they hit him over the head with a sledgehammer, that would be different . . . I'd rather see this than the silent treatment. Let things surface and then be over and done with."

Which leaves the larger question unanswered. In this era in which the players train all year round, is training camp obsolete?

Can you believe this?

Jimmy Irsay, the son of Colts owner Bob Irsay, told USA Today last week he still has emotional ties to Baltimore.

"There's a heritage there that I'm certainly proud of," he said"Those players were idols of mine: Johnny Unitas, Bubba Smith, Tom Matte, Mike Curtis."

Irsay also said the Colts aren't giving back the nickname. "But I know my father and I wish them well in their pursuits," he said.

The Colts media guide still includes profiles of all the Colts Halof Famers, although none ever played in Indianapolis and only one, Unitas, ever played in the Irsay era. He lasted five games.

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