How the Chicago White Sox created March Madness (#CWS)

By Scott A. Rowan

March Madness began in a dorm room at Northwestern University with a diminutive student using the dorm’s phone as his work phone. The 22-year-old future pioneer of basketball, baseball, and sports media was a student back then, hustling between negotiations with television executives and athletic directors on his dorm’s phone and classes at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Former minority owner of the Chicago White Sox and creator of March Madness as a television pioneer Eddie Einhorn (1936-2016).

Decades before becoming co-owner of the Chicago White Sox with business partner Jerry Reinsdorf and just a few short years before giving birth to the infancy of the annual televised marathon of sports excitement known as March Madness, Eddie Einhorn was finding his way in the wilderness that was national sports.

It was 1958 and Einhorn was the only person in the world who saw the mountain of untapped possibility in the landscape of college basketball. In the months after Russia launched the world’s first satellite (Sputnik in November 1957) prompting the U.S. to launch its first satellite (Explorer I, Jan. 31, 1958), Einhorn was launching the another global first: an organized, national broadcast network that bring away games to the fan base back in the team’s home market. Prior to Einhorn turning his dorm phone into his business phone and the lobby into his unofficial conference room, college basketball was a nonexistent sports market on the national scene.

“Hardly anybody cared about college basketball then except for the fans of the individual teams who listened on their local stations,” Einhorn recalled in his book, How March Became Madness. “Nobody could foresee the day when it would become March Madness, the Final Four would be one of the top sporting events in the country, and the television networks would be paying billions of dollars to put it on the air. So the NCAA was happy to sell me the rights for a small fee. They were just happy someone was interested.”

Neither the executives at the NCAA nor with any of radio stations around the country – including New York’s WOR-AM, one of New York City’s oldest news/talk stations – realized the producer assembling the world’s first national broadcast network for college basketball was just a law student who was still in school.

After graduating from the Northwestern law school, Einhorn decided it was time to up the ante on his bet that the national appetite for college basketball was unsated for fans and redirected his efforts from broadcasting college basketball on radio to television. Shockingly, the apathy that permeated the leadership of college basketball regarding broadcasts of their games nationally via radio was even more uninterested in the potential in televised broadcasts of their games.

“After I graduated from law school, my next step was to try television, and I learned one thing very quickly: if radio didn’t think college basketball was national programming material, television really didn’t care,” Einhorn said in his book. “When I broadcasted the 1962 NCAA championship game, for instance, it featured two best teams in the country, Cincinnati and Ohio State, but the only viewers who saw the game live were in the state of Ohio. I know it sounds crazy, but the rest of the country had to wait for ABC to show the tape the following after on Wide World of Sports. It was this indifference that gave me my opening.”

TVS NETWORK

Based out of a $117-per-month basement apartment in Paterson, New Jersey, Einhorn created the TVS Network (TVS stood for Televised Sports) to broadcast the 1960 game between St. Bonaventure and Bradley at Madison Square Garden. The fledgling network had no resources beyond Einhorn’s vision: his wife, Ann, supported the family with her paycheck and their children, Jennifer and Jeff, were the TVS mascots, becoming so popular that they each received fan mail.

“We had to live on [my wife’s] salary through most of the 1960’s,” Einhorn said, referring to the cafeteria cashier job his spouse, Ann, held at the Northwestern’s Abbott Hall.

The couple’s gamble eventually paid off. Successful broadcasts revealed the national appetite for out-of-market basketball games, and schools enjoyed the new revenue stream that selling national broadcasts gave their programs.

In 1965 Einhorn began creating regional networks that focused on conference matchups. Year by year Einhorn added conferences to his network like a child does baseball cards: Mid-American Conference, Big 8, Southwest Conference, Western Conference, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference, Big Ten, and Pac-10. Only the ACC, easily the top basketball conference in the nation at the time, refused to join Einhorn’s national network. Armed with popular independent schools like Notre Dame, DePaul, Marquette, Houston Air Force, Detroit and others, Einhorn’s TVS network covered 93 percent of the nation (the remaining 7 percent was the region covered by the ACC).

“The one thing we had going for us was the lack of interest on the part of the three major networks,” said Einhorn, referring to ABC, CBS, and NBC. “I was afraid other networks would combine to swallow me up, but they seemed content to stay regional, whereas my plan was to operate on a national basis. After a while, TVS had deals with almost 200 stations that reached more than 95 percent of the country.”

UCLA vs. Houston

The watershed moment in basketball history came on Jan. 20, 1968, when UCLA played Houston at the Astrodome in a matchup dubbed “The Game of the Century.” Though a record-setting crowd of 52,693 filled the Astrodome to see Houston, led by Elvin Hayes, upset Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and UCLA 71-69, the more significant audience that day was the estimated 20 million of viewers who tuned in to the action on television sets across the nation.

“Eddie was taking phone calls and literally writing out 30-second spots from advertisers who called us at courtside to take an ad for the second half,” announcer Dick Enberg said, revealing the hands-on approach that was a noted Einhorn trait.

Though TVS was losing as much at $500,000 per year at the time, Einhorn’s bid of $27,500 for the UCLA-Houston game topped the highest bid from a major network by $200 and earned the growing network the rights to one of the most historic games in basketball history. TVS made an estimated $80,000 from the game. Though the financial success of the game was a major plus, the most significant outcome of the game was proof that nationally-broadcasted basketball had an audience in sports fans in markets across the nation.

Big Time

In the years after “The Game of the Century” Einhorn’s TVS Network had other consistent broadcasting hits in the Notre Dame-UCLA games of 1971 and 1974, pro basketball all-star games (NBA and ABA), and boxing bouts. The success of Einhorn’s TVS Network was undeniable and in 1972 he sold the world’s first national collegiate broadcasting network to Corinthian Broadcasting, a division of Dun and Bradstreet, for a package estimated at $10 million dollars ($5 million in cash plus 100,000 shares of Dun and Bradstreet) that also gave him a five-year contract to run the network with a six-figure salary. At the end of the five-year contract, Einhorn joined CBS as an executive producer working on CBS Sports Spectacular and other sports packages.

Chicago White Sox

After their 1959 World Series appearance, the Chicago White Sox were struggling.

The 1959 season was a benchmark for the team for three reasons:

  1. Baseball icon Bill Veeck purchased a controlling in the team that year,
  2. The White Sox promptly reached the World Series (losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-2) and,
  3. A vendor selling snacks in the Comiskey Park stands that season solidified his love for the organization while he pursued his law degree.

Einhorn was that vendor, selling snacks in the ballpark that he would one day own with his partner, Jerry Reinsdorf.

Though Veeck, a baseball icon, had purchased a controlling share of the White Sox in 1959, his tenure only lasted two years due to failing health. Veeck returned in 1975 to an ownership role, but the 1970s and 1980s were unspectacular times for the team. In a 22-season stretch from 1968-1989 the White Sox had just six seasons with a winning percentage of .500 or better (including the 1974 season that finished 80-80, exactly a .500 winning percentage).

After the 1969 season, Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots and moved the organization to Milwaukee and renamed it the Brewers. Selig completed the deal that the White Sox had considered for years: a move to Milwaukee. A 1967 exhibition game in Milwaukee drew 51,144 fans to see the White Sox and Twins play. In 1968, the White Sox scheduled nine games in Milwaukee and increased the total to 11 games played in Milwaukee in 1969.

Selig’s purchase and relocation of the Pilots to Milwaukee ended the White Sox’s flirtation with relocating to Wisconsin, but dire circumstances facing the organization – poor attendance, a bad neighborhood, lack of secure parking for families, and a stadium in dire need of repair – led to another aborted move in in the 1980s to Florida.

By the time the second threat of the White Sox’s relocation ideas surfaced, the ownership group had changed. On Jan. 29, 1981, Einhorn and Reinsdorf (who were both 45 years old at the time), bought the White Sox. Friends who met while pursuing their law degrees at Northwestern, Reinsdorf and Einhorn were co-owners of the White Sox until Einhorn’s death on Feb. 24, 2016, from complications after a stroke.

During their 35 years leading the White Sox, Reinsdorf became the more well-known owner to the fan base, but it was Einhorn who got the headlines when their purchase was announced. Though Einhorn initially was only going to be a consultant for Reinsdorf and the White Sox (if his CBS supervisors approved), Einhorn’s role morphed into becoming full-time. Einhorn quit CBS and became the White Sox’s president and chief operating officer from 1981-1990 and was the vice chairman from 1990 until his death.

Changing the future of sports

At the time of their White Sox purchase, Einhorn was the famous television executive, a visionary who created the weeks-long televised national sports addiction known as March Madness, and Reinsdorf was simply another wealthy business executive who wanted to own a team. However, baseball fans everywhere soon benefitted from Einhorn’s media expertise.

In 1988, Einhorn guided Major League Baseball into record-setting territory by leading the negotiations with his former employers, CBS, for the first billion-dollar TV deal in television history with a $1.1 billion deal for four years beginning in 1990.

In 1994, The Baseball Network became the first television network in the world owned by a sports league (it was run in conjunction with NBC and ABC). Though the network only lasted two seasons, it was the predecessor for league-owned networks like NBA TV (launched in 1999), NHL Network (2001), NFL Network (2003) and MLB Network (2009).

Harry Caray’s switch to Cubs

Those league-owned networks were an extension of the pay-TV plan named SpotsVision that Einhorn launched as soon as he and Reinsdorf assumed control of the White Sox. Sportsvision was launched in 1981 as a sports-only channel that featured live games of the White Sox, Chicago Bulls (which Reinsdorf didn’t own yet), Chicago Blackhawks, and other Chicago sports like soccer, tennis and boxing. Viewers would pay a one-time $50 installment fee and $21.95 per month for access to all Chicago pro sports action exclusive of the Chicago Cubs, whose games were free on WGN-TV.

Einhorn and Reinsdorf bet that 50,000 households in the Chicago area would want SportsVision and to lure them the new White Sox owners tried to lure Harry Caray to the network. Caray had become a controversial figure as the White Sox announcer when he and partner Jimmy Piersall began criticizing the team to the point that players and coaches balked. Caray’s contract had been handled as a series of one-year deals, but in 1981 all of that changed because of Einhorn.

Eager to add Caray’s name to SportsVision, Einhorn and Reinsdorf explained how the new network would work, but Caray didn’t buy the premise.

“I became suspicious,” Caray wrote years later in his book, Holy Cow. “I got the distinct impression that their plan was to hire me for a year, use me to sell those 50,000 customers, and then release me.”

Caray asked for a five- or three-year contract. Einhorn refused, saying instead that they preferred a one-year deal. Within in minutes of concluding the meeting, Caray called Andy McKenna, an executive with the Chicago Cubs, and asked if they were interested in having him replace Jack Brickhouse, who had retired after the 1981 season. Before dinner, Caray and the Cubs had brokered the basic agreement for the announcer to switch allegiances from the White Sox to the Cubs, all because Caray didn’t believe in SportsVision (and/or because he felt he was a pawn in the process).

Both Einhorn and Caray ended up being correct. SportsVision didn’t capture the 50,000 subscribers the plan needed and was eventually sold to Cablevision and The Washington Post Co. in December 1983. Cablevision made the station part of their basic cable programming and the idea took hold. Though Einhorn-Reinsdorf had to sell SportsVision, it still entertains millions of sports fans in Chicago and across the nation.

“The Sox’s pay-TV channel [SportsVision] evolved into what is now Comcast SportsNet, which is jointly owned by the Sox, Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks,” explained the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan in 2016 eulogy column.

Even though he won’t be alive to see it, Einhorn forever changed baseball in much the same way that he forever changed basketball: by televising the excitement in ways that viewers want (and will pay to see).

“Einhorn’s idea [SportsVision] changed the course of baseball economics,” Chicago Tribune columnist Ed Sherman explained after Einhorn’s death. “In recent years, teams have signed multi-year deals in the billions of dollars with local sports networks. It is one of the reasons the Cubs are talking about launching their own network when their CSN contract expires in 2019. They want to be competitive in paying escalating salaries that seem to have no limits.”
In other words, the Chicago Cubs can join a long list of sports teams and schools who owe a huge debt of gratitude to Einhorn, who, years ago, envisioned the future of televised sports that fans enjoy everywhere today.

SOURCES:

Randy Minkoff, “COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1968: UCLA vs. HOUSTON : The Game That Started It All : Until These Giants Met, TV and Its Advertisers Weren’t Interested,” UPI, March 30, 1986, http://articles.latimes.com/1986-03-30/sports/sp-1813_1_college-basketball-s-popularity

Harry Caray and Bob Verdi, Holy Cow! (New York: Villard Books, 1989), Ch. 17.

Scott Merkin, “Broadcasting legend, White Sox exec Einhorn, 80, mourned,” MLB.com, Feb. 25, 2016, http://m.mlb.com/news/article/165426300/white-sox-executive-eddie-einhorn-dies-at-80/.

Dave Nightengale, “Jan. 30, 1981: Meet Eddie Einhorn, one of the White Sox’s new owners,” Chiago Tribune, Feb. 25, 2016 (repost from Jan. 30, 1981), http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/whitesox/ct-eddie-einhorn-jerry-reinsdorf-sox-ownership-20160225-story.html

Paul Sullivan, “Eddie Einhorn’s vision put White Sox on pay-TV,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 25, 2016, http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/columnists/ct-eddie-einhorns-vision-put-the-white-sox-on-paytv-20160225-column.html

Ed Sherman, “Eddie Einhorn a broadcast visionary who changed sports landscape,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 25, 2016, http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/columnists/ct-eddie-einhorn-white-sox-sherman-spt-0226-20160225-column.html

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