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The Dodgers on pay-TV-only is the culmination of Walter O’Malley’s dream

Mar 18, 2014, 11:33 AM EST

Walter O'Malley

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.

  1. kash71 - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    Well this dream has turned into a nightmare for most of us Dodger fans.

    And I honestly don’t blame the other providers for drawing a line in the sand over this.

    • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:14 PM

      Well, the providers have to be careful. Sure they have to pay the sports network so much per subscriber, and raise rates, but look what happened in San Diego.
      Warner refused to pay, for two years. They just came aboard this season, and the rationale was that Time Warner held the Dodgers network, and how would it look to other carriers if TW wasn’t paying for the Padres’ Fox network? In fact, Time Warner lost nearly 10% of it’s San Diego subscriber base, and it didn’t look good to TW’s new owners going up agains AT&T’s Uverse, as well as the satellite networks.

      If the cable providers have competition and don’t carry the Dodgers, what will happen to their subscriber base? Eventually, the providers will come around, but there will be a slight additional charge to their customers.

      • stex52 - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:17 PM

        Slight is not what I would call the additional charge.

      • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:18 PM

        BTW, Time Warner, the entertainment company that owns the Dodgers network, and Time Warner, the cable provider, are two different operations, from what I’ve been told.

      • jrbdmb - Mar 18, 2014 at 1:48 PM

        Within a few years more than double the cost of any other RSN, featuring one team and no sports for half the year = “slight additional charge.” !!!

    • stex52 - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:16 PM

      The revolution has already started in Houston. Other networks refused to pay, the cable network would only reach 40% of the population, and the network had to file for bankruptcy reorganization. The owners are in court over it now. At the same time they changed their radio flagship to a station with a very weak signal output.

      Even granting that Houston has a very pathetic product to market (although the Rockets are on the same network), I think you are seeing the future. Cable networks are facing competition from the internet. They are going to have to control prices and decide what packages they want to offer. I think sooner rather than later you will see:
      1. A la carte ordering of cable packages
      or 2. No coverage of home teams due to total cost to people who are unwilling to pay it.

      In case 2, you will see a wave of bankruptcies through the cable networks and a scaling back of these unbelievably lucrative team deals.

      • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:22 PM

        I think you’re right about the scaling back of team deals, and the revenue they promised to teams. Those teams spending big money on those long term player contracts will be the first to feel the squeeze. By golly, it might make Bud Selig retire for real this time!

    • lanflfan - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:02 PM

      I have no problem listening to Dodger games on the radio (yes I still own a couple). I refuse to pay anymore for the already far too high TV portion of my Fios package, even for the team I love. I hope this bursts the bubble on sports programming, because it has achieved ludicrous speed.

    • drewsylvania - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:41 AM

      Welcome to the club…

  2. jrbdmb - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Given the cost of SportsNetLA and providers unwillingness to pay it, it would appear that the Dodgers will be on “no TV” for the majority of local residents this year.

    • jrbdmb - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:52 AM

      BTW, SportsNetLA is asking $4 – $5 per month now, and goes up to $8 per month in the next five years. This for a channel with no live pro sports for half of the year.

      Even the Yankees only have the nerve to charge $3-ish a month, and they have Brooklyn Nets games to show during the winter.

      • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:26 PM

        The Yankees have sold off all but a fraction of their network ownership stake. Think they know something?

      • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:27 PM

        That’s about what ESPN gets now, and they demand to be a basic cable channel!

  3. karlkolchak - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:43 AM

    Baseball is really overplaying its hand with this stuff. I’m a season ticket holder who has really good seats and loves being at the stadium, but I wouldn’t pay 2 extra cents to watch my team on teevee if it ever comes to that in my area. Baseball is great to watch live, but on television it can be very tedious.

  4. blabidibla - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    As a Giants fan living in SoCal, this is music to my ears.

    • koufaxmitzvah - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:53 AM

      If it wasn’t for Dodgers ownership, your team would have been playing in Tampa Bay for the last 20 years.

      Lalalalalalalala…

      • blabidibla - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:08 PM

        Possibly. So… thanks for that?

      • hlang - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:14 PM

        Uh, no. If the Dodgers had voted for the Tampa sale the outcome would still have been 8-5 against. Every team then in the NL West opposed — for fairly obvious self-interested reasons — as did several others.

      • koufaxmitzvah - Mar 18, 2014 at 1:11 PM

        Who do you think rallied those NL West teams? The Dodgers didn’t just vote for the Giants to stay in SF, they led the way to keep them there.

      • jkcalhoun - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:31 PM

        Good question, who? If Peter O’Malley had intended to rally all of the NL West teams, he must have forgotten that the Reds were still in the NL West at the time.

      • gibbyfan - Mar 18, 2014 at 4:58 PM

        Walter O’malley never wanted to leave Brooklyn. He was forced out by a power hungry pol. Used to love to watch themat Ebbets………tha’t really where they belong.

  5. succulentnipples - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:52 AM

    Falafel on a stick.

  6. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:53 AM

    But don’t worry, thanks to Fox and MLB and TNT, and ESPN, you’ll get plenty of Yankees and Red Sox games!

  7. billybawl - Mar 18, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    Ditto on Lords of the Realm being essential reading. O’Malley in particular plays a huge role in baseball history. I wish that someone would pick up where the book leaves off, as I recall, just before the 1994 strike. It would be good timing, with Selig allegedly stepping down.

    • 18thstreet - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:23 PM

      Awesome book. (I particularly enjoy the, um, observation about George W. Bush’s level of intelligence. This was before any of us really knew who he was.

      • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:50 PM

        The book described Bush’s level of awareness of the workings of baseball, not his intelligence. He got better grades than Gore or Kerry, and got an MBA from Harvard. He could also fly a F104 Starfighter without crashing it, something 294 German pilots couldn’t claim. Never mistake a stumble tongue for lack of intelligence – Thomas Jefferson spoke with a stutter.

      • 18thstreet - Mar 18, 2014 at 1:46 PM

        The book was not generous, in any way, toward any aspect of Bush’s intellect.

      • koufaxmitzvah - Mar 18, 2014 at 1:19 PM

        Also, his head is perfect for a lampshade while partying in the frat house. I also bet Georgie W knew his way around a paddle.

      • 18thstreet - Mar 18, 2014 at 6:55 PM

        The President’s son, also named George Bush, led a group that bought the Texas Rangers. Lost for years in the shadow of his father, the First Son’s ownership of a baseball team suddenly made him a personage. Actually, he was only one of two general partners, the other one being the brains of the operation. That was Rusty Rose, a Dallas sharpie who’d made a fortune short-selling stock. (The was sometimes called ‘Rusty the Mortician.’) But Bush was the out-front guy, a role in which he exulted.

        “Does he know that he doesn’t really run this team?” a writer once asked a Rangers official.

        “No, no,” said the official, “and don’t you dare tell him.”

        — p. 444

      • bigdicktater - Mar 18, 2014 at 7:08 PM

        and a coke spoon

  8. hlang - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:02 PM

    As a Giants fan who lives in SF I’m amazed the Dodgers have been giving it away all this time. The Giants limited their game broadcasts to cable/satellite years ago. They transmit five or six over the air per year — wow! Free baseball on TV! — but the rest go through Comcast SportsNet or whatever it’s called. Included in basic cable service, sure, but if baseball is pretty much the only thing you use broadcast TV for, the price is steep. Me, I go to the games or hear them on radio.

    • jkcalhoun - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:07 PM

      15, but yes, the vast majority of broadcasts require a cable TV subscription or satellite TV.

      • hlang - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:19 PM

        15? Bonanza! Didn’t realize it was a full 9% of their schedule. Hope they sell some extra churros.

    • kash71 - Mar 18, 2014 at 10:04 PM

      They got 50 million last year from the Local Station and Fox for games aired.

      Not exactly giving it away.

  9. chiadam - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    Something something dark side.
    Something something complete.

  10. sdelmonte - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    There are something like 15 Mets games on free TV now. Maybe less free Yankees games. Going from 15 to zero isn’t such a big trip.

    Not that I can pick up the channel the Mets are on right now. I can get every silly channel with reruns of Petticoat Junction and all the Fox shows I want, but can’t get the CW. I wish I knew why. Lousy HDTV signals.

    • NatsLady - Mar 18, 2014 at 1:11 PM

      Same with the Nats. A smattering of games (mostly Sunday afternoons) on local TV plus the Fox games–which aren’t always the Nats, of course. I can get the HD signal during the day if I jiggle the antenna, but once darkness falls, very chancy.

  11. schlom - Mar 18, 2014 at 12:36 PM

    How many teams have games on broadcast tv still? I live in San Diego and it’s been years since they were available over the air.

    • sportsfan18 - Mar 19, 2014 at 12:23 PM

      even the Cubs most likely won’t be on the superstation WGN much longer…

      their games have been on that station forever it seems (many, many decades) but the new owner Ricketts is looking for other avenues… er money.

      over the next couple of yrs, it will change for sure…

  12. normcash - Mar 18, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    I believe that cable/satellite penetration is about 90% in the U.S. The homes that only receive
    TV from over-the-air stations are simply too few to matter anymore. Furthermore, many of that
    dwindling number can receive games over the internet. The rising cost of cable/satellite service is a legitimate issue, as is the growing cost to providers of rights fees from sports teams. But that is
    a separate issue from the pay vs. free TV question. That debate, as the Hawk might say, is ovahhh.

    • byjiminy - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:50 PM

      You believe wrong. Only 58.4% of U.S households have cable, according to Wikipedia (2006 numbers).

      And we matter, to us if not to you.

      • dcarroll73 - Mar 18, 2014 at 4:17 PM

        And whatever the exact percentage, the number of U.S. households who simply CAN’T pick up broadcast TV shot WAY up when HDTV was shoved down our throats. This was no accident. The industry and the government that it owns knew that this would happen. In the old analog broadcast world, people at the extreme range might get a bit of a snowy picture, but now they get nothing. Since I live in the no-man’s-land between Albany and NYC where both distance and small mountains are against me, this is a real concern. I get only basic cable and refuse to pay more than that. If I weren’t an evening news junky, I would even get rid of that. I tell my daughter about the glory days of picking up 7 NYC stations free with an antenna, and she thinks I’m crazy.

      • normcash - Mar 18, 2014 at 5:38 PM

        No, you’re wrong. According to Nielson, 90.4% of U.S. households had pay TV via
        cable or satellite at the end of 2011) And it isn’t a question of whether the holdouts “matter” to me or to you. It’s a tiny market and the BROADCASTERS don’t care.

      • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 6:18 PM

        @normcash – the Nielson numbers are the percentage that have cable available, not subscribers. It’s much higher than the 2006 number of 58.4% but not yet up to 90.4%.

  13. serbingood - Mar 18, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    Games on cable or sat are still subject to blackout rules. I live in Las Vegas and we are subject to blackouts for Giants, A’s, Dodgers, Angels, Padres, and D’Backs. That’s 6 teams out of 30. The ironic thing is that non of these cities has an over the air signal in Las Vegas, yet somehow we are considered to be in their markets. Even the MLB TV channel does the blackout thing on the above teams. However when the Yankees play the Red Sox on a Fox day, somehow due to the magic of Fox pixie dust I get an Angels game or the Dodgers. This is the proverbial exception to the rule crap.

    So I pay for sat coverage and the MLB At Bat Premium coverage and still can’t watch up to 6 teams. Yep this pay TV model for baseball games is the future all right. The future of a prolonged decline in viewership and revenue. Another case of MLB having cranial rectal inversion.

  14. jm91rs - Mar 18, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    I read some of this stuff awhile back, Matty Fox was a bit of a con man type. He had a grand vision, but not nearly enough money to make that happen, selling stock for a company that was just a vision basically. If he had the money this would have happened in the late 50s with the Giants (they had the TV rights, but no way to lay all the cable and actually make it happen, so the Giants games went untelevised for a little while). The Dodgers would likely have followed suit in the early 60s if the network of cables could have gotten up and running.

  15. monsor - Mar 18, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    I hate you, Walter O’Malley! Your greed took the Dodgers away from us long islanders and I was forced to become a Mets fan. Even in death, you and your team is still screwing it’s fans. Good job you d/ck!

    • gloccamorra - Mar 18, 2014 at 6:39 PM

      Aw, give the dead guy a break. He wanted the City of New York to use eminent domain to clear a larger parcel in Brooklyn in trade for the Ebbets Field block, while he would pay to clear the new site and pay to build the new ballpark.

      He couldn’t stay at Ebbets because the league wanted symmetrical field distances and the fire codes wanted bigger aisles and more exits on a maxed out site that was in need of structural repair. That would have reduced seating capacity by thousands.

      Any city today would leap at the offer O’Malley made, but the City of NY countered with swamp land in Queens, take it or leave it. When O’Malley went to the Commissioner for help, he was told to look to Los Angeles, because the PCL, which tried to become a third major league in 1947, was on a building tear of new ballparks that were expandable.

      LA and the Bay area were the financial heart of the PCL, and the Dodgers move killed its chances of major league status, just what the Commissioner and other owners wanted. The Giants moving to the Bay area was the coup de grace for the PCL, and LA was much more welcoming than NY City Hall.

      Let up on the dead native New Yorker who was caught in a vise and lay the blame on Mayor Walker’s administration where it belongs.

  16. Bob Timmermann - Mar 18, 2014 at 7:52 PM

    The Dodgers did televise a handful of home games on a service called “Subscription TV” back in 1964. Vin Scully refused to participate in it.

    The service was operated by former NBC exec Pat Weaver.

    California voters banned Pay TV in a referendum later that year even though regulating TV isn’t really a state matter. But we Californians don’t like to deal with such issues.

  17. stevesherman161 - Mar 19, 2014 at 8:04 PM

    What O’Malley envisioned was what we now call Pay Per View. The idea was that watching a Dodger game would cost one dollar, exactly what we paid to sit in the upper deck. But even Walter, who saw farther than most of his contemporaries, couldn’t have imagined what was actually to come.

    If they’re not careful these providers are going to shoot themselves in the foot. They’re paying the Dodgers astronomical sums to televise their games on the theory that they’re going to get it back in subscriptions. I’d be willing to bet that the contract won’t be half over before they’re losing money on it.

    If you’re only a Dodger fan you’re SOL for the time being, but if you’re a baseball fan you already have an alternative: MLB.TV, which gives you your choice of games and even broadcasts (home or away). Some time down the road organizations are going to figure out that a share of the MLBAM pie is going to be a bigger part of the future than these unsustainable cable TV deals, at which point the blackouts will go away.

    Here in Munich, of course, MLB.TV is all I have, but it’s ironic that I’ll get to hear more of Vin Scully than many folk back in my old home town. For now, anyway.

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