Changing channels

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

In January 1998, only a few days after he announced he was purchasing the Texas Rangers for $250 million, Tom Hicks sat in his opulent, marble-and-oak office in the Crescent and spoke of how he saw the future: on television. He was trying to explain why a man with his business savvy would own two major-league franchises in one city -- why he would gamble so much money on teams he, to this day, insists are losing revenue despite their on-the-field success.

"I didn't buy a baseball team for $250 million," Hicks explained, wearing a smile the way Jerry Jones wears a hairpiece. Rather, Hicks said, the Rangers were just one more segment of what he then called his "sports-entertainment-media company," one built around the Rangers and his Dallas Stars, who were then a year away from winning the Stanley Cup. Hicks -- who discovered that content providers, not media distributors, own the ballgame in the satellite age -- envisioned a Tom Hicks-owned regional sports network that would broadcast his Stars, his Rangers, and, now, his Mesquite Rodeo throughout Texas and the five adjoining states -- both on cable and over broadcast television.

He had seen the future in Los Angeles, where Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch was in the process of buying the L.A. Dodgers. He had seen it in Philadelphia, where, in July 1997, Comcast-Spectacor announced the creation of Comcast SportsNet, which would offer baseball (Phillies), hockey (Flyers), and basketball (76ers) games. And Hicks had seen it in Detroit, where the Tigers and Red Wings skyrocketed in value after ESPN and Fox got in a bidding war to provide content for a similar regional network.

Hicks envisioned a network broadcasting "men's and women's university sports, coaches' shows -- a lot of sports," he said at the time, promising it would be available to both cable subscribers and over-the-air (meaning: free) television, the latter through his own Channel 39. He would own sports in this town -- if not all the teams, then certainly all the channels upon which they are broadcast (except, of course, for the Dallas Cowboys).

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Which meant Hicks needed one more piece to complete his puzzle. "We want to include the Dallas Mavericks on some contractual basis as well," he said in January 1998. At the time, it seemed so logical, so obvious: Hicks and Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr. were partners in the new arena, and the Mavericks' games were already being broadcast on the Hicks-owned Channel 39, which has since fallen under the auspices of Hicks' Southwest Sports Group. Of course the Mavs would be part of the equation.

Not bloody likely.

Three weeks ago, the Mavericks announced that it had formed a "broad, multi-year strategic marketing broadcast with USA Broadcasting," the network owned by Barry Diller, the man who created the mini-series when he acquired the rights to Alex Haley's Roots. Translated from the original press release, this means that beginning in November, the Mavericks will broadcast 30 regular-season games on USA Broadcasting's Dallas affiliate, KSHX-Channel 49, which currently broadcasts nothing but Home Shopping Network programming.

In other words, so much for the Dallas Mavericks participating in Hicks' regional sports network.

On the surface, the Mavericks' defection from Channel 39 -- the team's agreement had run out, but there was an option year left -- seems more than a bit odd, offering a hint that all's not well between Hicks and Junior Perot. Indeed, to the outsider, it seems as though Perot has put one over on his partner in the American Airlines Center and other real estate development around the new arena. Not that there's ever been much love lost between the two men: They didn't speak for eight months during negotiations over the arena, and Perot stole the Mavericks from Hicks, who was readying to buy the basketball team when then-owner Don Carter, ah, changed his mind.

But Hicks was counting on Mavericks programming to fill the schedule of his new network, which is slated to make its debut next July, according to Southwest Sports Group chief operating officer Mike Cramer -- after SSG finalizes a content deal with either Fox Sports Net, ESPN, or CNN/SI, which Cramer says should be signed and sealed within the month.

Now, in addition to wraparound content provided by one of the cable outlets, Hicks will have to make do with the likes of Big 12 football games, Mesquite Rodeo broadcasts, coaches' shows, and local high school football games -- all likely programming for the new network, Cramer says.

Mavericks President Terdema Ussery says, of course, that the team's new TV deal was a purely business decision, that he and Perot saw a way for the Mavericks to make more money and gain more exposure by hooking up with Diller and USA. After all, he says, the Mavericks were going to be competing for air time with the Stars, who will move from Channel 27 to Channel 39 this season. God forbid a scheduling conflict should arise: Who do you think gets first preference on a station owned by Hicks -- his own Stanley Cup-winning hockey team or Perot's basement-dwelling embarrassment?  

Moreover, the USA deal will make the Mavericks a nice piece of coin. Though Ussery and USA Broadcasting President and Chief Executive Officer Jon Miller won't talk specifics, sources close to the deal say the Mavericks will profit in at least two ways from their alliance with USA. One, the network will pay the team licensing fees for the rights to broadcast games; and two, the team will still be allowed to sell advertising during its own games. That means, quite simply, that the Mavericks will keep every penny.

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.

"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 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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