This year, for the first time ever, you will not be able to watch the Dodgers on television in the Los Angeles area with a set of rabbit ears on your TV. It’s cable or satellite only thanks to the launch of their new channel, SportsNetLA. I’ve seen some amount of consternation about this on the part of Dodgers fans, but really, this is how it was meant to be all along.
I say that because I am currently re-reading “Lords of the Realm,” John Helyar’s essential book about the business of baseball. And I do mean essential. It’s impossible to understand how baseball works as a business — how and why the owners, union, commissioner and TV networks do what they do and why — without understanding how baseball developed as a business over the past century or so. Most of what you read about these subjects from me and others is informed by the stuff in “Lords of the Realm,” but it is so much more entertaining and understandable when you take it all in in one book.
Heylar reminds us that one of Walter O’Malley’s ideas about how to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn was to capture revenues from fans who were moving out of the city and to the suburbs and were loathe to come back to Ebbets Field due to parking concerns and worries about crime and the like. How to do this? Pay TV. Pay TV in the 1950s, you ask? Oh yeah. People were talking about it. Specifically, O’Malley and a man named Matty Fox were talking about it:
O’Malley was also intrigued by pay TV. He’d met a fellow named Matty Fox, who was trying to make that embryonic technology a commercial reality. He and O’Malley hatched a plan in which Fox’s company, called Skiatron, would put Dodgers games on pay TV at a cost of one dollar a game for viewers. Skiatron would get two thirds of the gross, the Dodgers one third, and in this way the huge base of fans who couldn’t squeeze into Ebbets Field would be harvested.
This wouldn’t work in New York, however, because the Yankees and Giants each broadcast half their games for free and it was determined that the market just wouldn’t be there. But the idea still intrigued O’Malley. Later, when he was considering Los Angeles, one of the many enticements was that there was no other televised baseball in southern California, and that he and Skiatron could put Dodgers games on pay TV in that “lush, virgin territory,” to use Heylar’s term.
More to the point, O’Malley used the promise of pay TV to lure the Giants to San Francisco along with him, which was key, because a move out west was far more feasible for two teams than just one. O’Malley had been working on Giants owner Horace Stoneham to go west too. Then:
O’Malley clinched it by bringing along Matty Fox for a meeting with Stoneham. Fox talked about Skiatron’s big plans in San Francisco, and Stoneham heard the sweet sounds of money. Ka-ching.
Eventually Skiatron went belly-up when movie theater operators ganged up on it when they saw the threat to their business. Approval for pay TV in California was shot down in a statewide referendum. Later, Skiatron ran into SEC troubles as a result of promising more than it could deliver. Cable was put off a couple of decades.
But the idea of putting the Dodgers on pay TV is certainly an old one. One that predates the team’s arrival in Los Angeles. And which, actually, helped move the team there in the first place.