Stick it in your ear

Frank Mitchell thought he was a made man in the all-powerful 'family' that controls professional golf. Then the PGA Tour shoved him out into the cold.

While appeals from the first lawsuit await action at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Mitchell continues to press his second suit, alleging that the Tour improperly scuttled his efforts to save his business by cutting a deal with Anheuser-Busch. That case is set for trial in April 1998.

Beyond the legal wrangling, though, there would seem to be a more common-sense test of Mitchell's allegations. If the PGA Tour really set out to steal Sportsband's idea, it follows that--some day--a new incarnation of the radio concept would resurface at PGA events.

That day, it turns out, was May 1 of this year, when the PGA Tour Radio Network kicked off at the Houston Open golf tournament. The emergence of the new radio program is, at the very least, a curious development.

Throughout the time Mitchell's first lawsuit against the Tour was pending, the Tour made no apparent move to reincarnate Sportsband's idea of an on-course radio network.

During the trial and in depositions, Tour officials testified under oath that they believed the idea was simply not financially feasible.

When he was on the stand during the 1996 trial, Commissioner Finchem was asked if there was any legal reason why the Tour couldn't go out and start its own Sportsband-type broadcast.

"Legally, no," Finchem testified under oath. "The only thing that would stop us is we don't believe it makes sense from a financial standpoint."

Finchem's testimony came at a time when it was in the Tour's best interest to downplay the financial viability of Sportsband's idea. But once the trial was over, Tour officials suddenly rediscovered the potential of a radio broadcasting venture.

On May 24, 1996--just two and a half months after Finchem's trial testimony--an internal Tour memo was drafted outlining plans to set up the PGA Tour Radio Network.

According to the memo, the Tour planned to solicit bids from 33 companies to put together a package of golf coverage tailored for radio. The proposal sounded remarkably like the one Mitchell and Rice carried with them to Ponte Vedra some 11 years ago.

It included on-site closed-circuit broadcasts for the tournament crowds, and feeds to radio stations. The proposal envisioned play-by-play announcers calling the tournaments, much the way Sportsband had set up its program.

The contract to set up the PGA Tour Radio Network was awarded to Warren Elliott, a New Orleans broadcaster. The Houston Open was its first event, but the network also broadcast at the Byron Nelson and is planning to broadcast the Colonial.

Elliott says his company is different from Sportsband. For one thing, it is broadcasting over AM bands instead of the closed-circuit bands Sportsband used. And fans buy their little radios instead of renting them.

Elliott and Tour officials have characterized the new network as an independent franchiser of the Tour. Elliott won't say what the financial arrangements are between the Tour and the network, nor how much the Tour is making from the new broadcasting effort.

"We bought the rights to the radio time," Elliott says. "We are a licensee of the Tour."

But Robin Goodfellow, the radio network's senior vice president and director of programming, indicates that the radio network is much closer to the Tour than that.

"We're part of the Tour," Goodfellow told the Observer. "We're half-owned by the Tour." Goodfellow insists the new network is not Sportsband reincarnated, although he concedes there are some similarities.

Theis Rice takes issue with that. "It's not similar," Rice says. "It is the pure implementation of the Sportsband business plan, pillar to post."

Mitchell is paying close attention to the evolution of the new radio network. It could wind up being the best argument he has to prove that the Tour did, indeed, set out to steal his idea.

His mistake, Mitchell says, was in trusting a newfound family too quickly.
"You can probably concoct a definition of stupid that puts me there," Mitchell says. "But over time I've become less critical of myself. I don't think I was stupid. I was trusting. I was dealing with the PGA Tour. I believed them when they told me not to worry.

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