Changing channels

When the Mavericks made a deal with the USA Network, Tom Hicks' regional sports channel became less regional

Besides, Ussery, who had been talking to USA for a year before announcing the agreement on August 11, doesn't seem too sold on the whole notion of a regional sports network.

"It's fine to talk about global concepts," he says. "But at the end of the day, these guys [USA Broadcasting] stepped out to the table. Channel 39 was great, but they were bringing hockey over there, and I didn't want us to be lost over there, to be one of many properties."

It appears the Mavericks never had any intention of being part of Hicks' stable: Besides the USA deal, the team also entered into a low-key, long-term cable deal with Fox Sports Net last year -- one that runs through at least 2003. If SSG were to enter into a cable deal with, say, ESPN or CNN, then the Mavericks would have been unable to make the leap.

WAMI, USA's station in Miami, features "Grandma Heat." Beats the hell out of Mavs Man.
WAMI, USA's station in Miami, features "Grandma Heat." Beats the hell out of Mavs Man.

"In a gentlemanlike fashion, we agreed to part ways," Ussery insists. "There are no hard feelings."

Mike Cramer admits that he wasn't entirely thrilled when Ussery broke the news about the Mavericks' leap to USA. Though he maintains a friendship with Ussery -- the two had breakfast together only last Friday, the day this interview took place -- Cramer does acknowledge that the basketball team's defection from Channel 39 is a loss.

"We'd like to be the home of sports in this area, so if you lose anything sports-connected, you're not happy," he says. But he's not a sore loser, contending that the Mavericks made a wise business decision -- one that means substantially more income for a team that would have been second- or third-string to the likes of the Rangers and the Stars.

"It was a wise thing for them to do," Cramer says. "Put the money aside -- they will be the prime focus on 49, and had they been with us, they would have been sharing billing with the Stars. The natural inclination was for them, once they had an economic deal that was favorable, to go with the benefits of being the prime feature of the channel. I mean, we could have broadcast Stars and Mavericks games. It would have taken creative scheduling -- it could have been dicey -- but it could have happened."

Instead, the Mavericks will make their debut on a station that, until now, has been the intellectual equivalent of a test pattern: the Home Shopping Network. But USA's Jon Miller says the cash register's closing up shop as soon as possible, to be replaced by Mavericks games and a mix of syndicated and locally produced programming. USA already runs once such station: WAMI (pronounced, of course, whammy) in Miami, which airs Miami Heat and Florida Marlins games -- in addition to a local news show featuring nothing but an enormous pair of red lips and something called Tens, which features babe-on-the-street interviews with South Beach locals.

Miller doesn't quite know what the local lineup will consist of -- Ussery, for his part, would like to suggest White Shadow reruns -- but says Mavericks game coverage will resemble the Heat's uptempo broadcasts, which, from the looks of things, resembles a cross between a soap opera and a PlayStation nuclear-holocaust video game. Miller talks about how the broadcasts are meant to tell a story -- that is, they present the team as "characters" playing a part in a "drama" that unfolds game by game.

A viewing of WAMI's coverage of Heat games reveals one thing: The broadcasts are about as subtle as South Beach itself. A baritone-voiced announcer introduced a Heat-Knicks game last season by insisting, "It is a war that has been waged countless times before...prisoners are not taken, love is not lost...it is a rivalry so fierce, it transcends the very game itself." Then there are such advertising concepts as "Grandma Heat," who is an old woman in love with Tim Hardaway; and a commercial that changes the words to the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song ("Welcome back to the game we love to shout about").

"I always maintain that everyone loves a winner, but sports fans love the game, and you need to bring the emotion and action to the people if you're winning and losing so people feel like they're part of something," says Jon Miller. "I'm not saying 39 doesn't do a good job with games, but what we do is different. And if we can continue to bring that distinction, it gives the Mavericks a chance to have a distinction."

Of course, in the end it doesn't matter if the Mavericks broadcast on Channel 49 or through a chip implanted in your cerebral cortex. What matters is that they win more than, oh, 40 games this season. When that happens, people might be willing to watch the games on an overhead projector.

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