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The Evanston Story
Written April 4, 2003

 

I operate a Chyron graphics generator for sports telecasts.  So far, I've never failed to show up at an event where they were expecting me.

But earlier in my career when I was working for Total Communication Systems, the opposite sometimes happened.  I arrived, ready to work, only to find that my services were not required.

Once, TCS was supplying the mobile unit and crew for a New York Islanders hockey game.  They'd mistakenly booked two graphics operators.  We both reported to the Nassau County Coliseum and discovered that we were supposed to be doing the same job.  Since I had flown in from Pittsburgh, local operator Mike Sheehan went home and let me run the machine.

Another time (June 3, 1986), TCS sent me to Philadelphia to do Chyron for the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers.  But the Dodgers broadcasters arrived with their own graphics operator, a man who worked all their shows home and away.  In this case, I yielded the chair and just hung around the truck during the game, at one point giving the maintenance engineer a break from his camera-shading duties.

And then there's the incident that people still talk about:  my unnecessary trip to Evanston, Illinois.


I blame the whole mix-up on the Supreme Court of the United States.

The NCAA, worried that live television coverage of college football games would hurt attendance, had been limiting the number of telecasts and setting the rights fees that TV networks had to pay.  But in a 7-2 decision on June 27, 1984, the court ruled that the NCAA's control of television contracts violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  Suddenly, the acquisition of rights to televise college sports became a chaotic scramble.  The TV sports business was thrown into disarray.

Mere weeks later — the timing couldn't have been worse — my employer, TCS, announced a merger with Metrosports, a Maryland-based company that had existing syndication contracts with many of the college conferences.  Metrosports had the rights, TCS had the technical production equipment, and the combination promised to have synergy.  The chairman of TCS, Nelson Goldberg (seen below in a promotional video), would run both companies.

Suddenly, as TCS/Metrosports, we were responsible for hundreds of telecasts.  In addition to football, these included basketball games in conferences like the Pac-10 and Big Ten and Big East plus "Great Independents" like Notre Dame and DePaul.

On the production side, we buckled down to work, churning out the game coverage.  But on the business side, problems started to show up almost immediately.

The first trouble came during the 1984 college football season, when another syndication company, Sportsview, failed to pay the Big Ten a promised $500,000.  TCS/Metrosports had a similar problem:  we had a $3 million football deal with the Pac-10 but managed to pay the conference only $2.5 million.

When the basketball season rolled around, Big Ten syndication would be handled by our company, not the bankrupt Sportsview.  Nevertheless, the conference didn't want to get burned again.  According to a story by Dan Donovan in the February 10, 1985, Pittsburgh Press, the Big Ten started asking for a certified check from TCS/Metrosports before every basketball game.  "'That broke our back,' Goldberg said."

The Metrosports Big Ten basketball contract that we had acquired was for three years at $12 million, ending with the 1984-85 season.  But according to the Press story, "Goldberg said the Big Ten's basketball ratings are the lowest in college basketball, making it difficult to sell to advertisers.  Goldberg said he had to 'buy time' in Chicago and Detroit to get the games on the air there."  In other words, we were losing money.

Meanwhile, other conferences had to renegotiate their deals downward or not get paid at all.  An example was the Pac-10.  In addition to the half-million dollars that our company still owed the Pac-10 for football, we owed them another million for basketball.  "Tom Hansen, the conference's executive director, said that officials of the sports broadcasting company are 'going to be in touch with us in two weeks and we'll have a better idea about whether we're going to get paid,'" according to a February 3, 1985, story in the Chicago Tribune.

The story continued:  "TCS/Metrosports has been suffering ever since the Supreme Court ruling last summer against the National Collegiate Athletic Association shook up the market for college sports broadcasts, Hansen said.  'Unfortunately, the college football market just fell through the floor because of the Supreme Court decision,' he said.  'Advertising revenues dropped and they began experiencing difficulties paying rights fees.  They were hoping the basketball season would allow them to catch up with football, but it hasn't worked out that way yet.  Other conferences had at least as much trouble, if not more, with other television syndicators.  It's a really broad-based problem, an almost universal situation.  Everybody got burned.'"

But I knew little of all this.  I was too busy doing my job, operating the Chyron on basketball telecasts in the Big Ten and Big East and Great Independents while exchanging memos about graphics with my counterparts in the Pac-10.  I also traveled to events in the Baltimore-Washington area for Home Team Sports, as well as to other TCS/Metrosports productions like the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim and the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu.  The trip to those bowl games made for an enjoyable final week of 1984.

On Wednesday, January 30, 1985, I flew to Indianapolis with my supervisor, producer Tom Huet.  We met play-by-play announcer Lanny Frattare and drove up to West Lafayette for the Illinois-Purdue basketball game.

(Incidentally, Lanny would be doing play-by-play for the ESPN telecast of a Purdue-Indiana game less than four weeks later when coach Bob Knight — looky here, looky here — threw his chair across the court.)

That night, I used the chart in the foreground to keep track of my graphics.  On the chart in the background, I filled in the rosters for my next event, scheduled for three days later.

On Thursday morning, January 31, we flew home to Pittsburgh.  I stopped by the office to pick up the airplane ticket for my next event, which would be another Big Ten game that Saturday, Michigan State at Northwestern.  I also received a schedule detailing where others in our company would be working on Saturday, complete with their phone numbers on location.  I noted that director Mike Kobik and producer Tom Clark would be traveling with me to my game.

Then I went home.  There would be no need for me to be in the office for the rest of the week, since I would be working on the weekend.

So I didn't hear the news, which to me was totally unexpected.  In Friday's USA Today, Rudy Martzke reported that on Thursday, "after its basketball syndicator, TCS/Metrosports, missed a January 10 payment, the Big Ten announced it will take over production for the remaining 17 telecasts this season.  'We expect a profit doing the games ourselves,' said Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke.  'In fact, we are considering forming our own company.'"

David Fink reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "The Big Ten Conference severed its ties with the Metrosports TV Network because the syndicator failed to pay rights fees for the league's basketball games.  Metrosports officials said they lost 'substantial' amounts of money on the deal and were pleased with the decision."

Somehow I missed those little stories on the inside pages of Friday's sports sections.  It was my day off, and I didn't want to think about work.  And as far as the office was concerned, I was apparently "out of sight, out of mind," because no one called to tell me that our company and the Big Ten had suddenly parted ways. 

Early on Saturday, February 2, plane ticket in hand, I drove to the Pittsburgh airport and boarded the flight to Chicago's O'Hare.  I expected Kobik and Clark to board the plane as well.  According to the travel plan, once we got to Chicago I was supposed to share a rental car with them and proceed to the game site in Evanston.  But they never showed up.

Finding myself alone at O'Hare, I phoned the TCS/Metrosports office for instructions.  Deb Honkus was working that Saturday morning and answered the phone.  I explained that I had not found my two co-workers in Chicago.  She didn't realize that I was there for a Big Ten game (we had other Great Independent telecasts in the Chicago area), so the implications of my call didn't dawn on her.  She recommended that I find my own ground transportation, preferably something cheaper than a taxicab.  So I boarded a bus and proceeded to the Northwestern University campus.  I walked the final few snow-covered blocks to the basketball arena, my briefcase in one hand and my overnight bag in the other.

Sure enough, there was the Trio Video mobile unit parked outside McGaw Hall.  The crew had just arrived and was starting to unload equipment from the truck.  I paused near the steps to wait for them to clear out the production area where I would be working.  It was then that somebody asked me, "What are you doing here?"

I hadn't anticipated that question.

"Didn't you hear?" he asked.  "TCS lost the Big Ten contract.  The Big Ten is producing the basketball telecasts itself from now on.  The conference hired the crew for today, including a Chyron operator from here in Chicago.  You aren't needed."

I looked dumbfounded.

"Maybe you'd better call somebody to check it out," he suggested.

"Maybe I should," I agreed.  I went inside the lobby of the arena, found a pay phone, and pulled out my paperwork.  I figured I should check with Tom Huet, and according to the schedule, he was in Madison, Wisconsin, that day.  I found the phone number for the mobile unit there and started to dial.

Wait a minute, I thought.  If what I had been told was true, the Big Ten would also be producing the telecast at Wisconsin, and Tom wouldn't be needed there either.  So I called his home number.  That's where he was.

He was a little surprised when I told him where I was.  Hadn't I heard?  No, no one had called me or let me know anything about a change of plans.  But we had indeed lost the Big Ten contract.  I might as well come home.

I returned by train to the airport, where I converted my return ticket from Sunday to Saturday.  And I called the hotel where we had been scheduled to spend the night to make sure that my reservation was cancelled.

I recounted the aftermath in a letter that I wrote on December 9, 1985: 

Afterward, they made it seem that I was at fault for not checking in on my day off to ask whether the plans I had gotten the day before were still good.  So I began calling in from the Pittsburgh airport before leaving on trips, confirming that the company for which I work had not gone out of business in the last 24 hours.

We actually did go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the spring.  All the Metrosports contracts with the various conferences expired, and with our poor payment record, we couldn't renew any of them.

So this fall, all we had was Penn State football plus a few West Virginia, Temple, and Rutgers games.  This winter the only basketball we have is Penn State, and I haven't seen any firm dates on that.

Fortunately, we were able to make an agreement with a solvent syndicator, Raycom, to supply trucks and crews for some of their events.  So I'll be working Metro Conference basketball this winter.  In fact, the first game is this week at Louisville.

And earlier in the year, we had a three-month deal with IBM to provide audio-visual support for their annual "hundred-per cent clubs":  three weeks in Miami Beach, two and a half weeks in New Orleans, and two weeks on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

So despite occasional difficulties, working with TCS can be rewarding.  Two trips to Hawaii within five months, for example.

Not only that; when I arrived in Hawaii, there was actually work for me to do!  Both times.

 

TBT

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