The Phils didn’t upgrade their aging roster; Chris Wheeler (above left with Tom McCarthy) was one of the worst announcers in sports history; and the team left billions on the Comcast table
By Theodore N. Beitchman
If you are a big fan of a team that followed five seasons of NL East dominance with back-to-back seasons of 81 and 73 victories, you had to be hoping for signs of improvement over the winter.
Instead, you got the sound of silence.
No trades of consequence, no free agent signings of consequence, unless you consider A. J. Burnett, a 37-year-old pitcher with a lifetime 147-132 record, consequential.
No news was bad news.
And then, on January 8, came the word many had been hoping for, some of us for 30 years. As an ancillary benefit of the Phils’ 25-year, $2.5 billion TV contract with Comcast, the telecom giant has taken control of the business of the broadcasting team.
WHEELS OFF is how the Daily News described it. PHILS RELEASE TWO VOICES is how the Inky headlined it across the top. On the front pages of the newspapers!
That’s how big the news was that Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews were both being cashiered.
For more than 30 years, Wheeler in the booth has been the elephant in the room. Listening to him endlessly and tediously blather on and on was akin to going to the dentist. You dreaded it and you were relieved and happy when it was over. Just like a root canal.
And like an elephant in a room, people just didn’t talk about it.
Wheeler’s greatest strength was his knowledge of the game, and his greatest weakness was that he always felt compelled to let you know how much he knew. In excruciating detail.
“Middle-in,” “cutter” and “two-seam fastballs” were examples of Wheeler’s “insight” that most every real baseball fan couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.
He also did TV exactly how he did radio, as if there were no picture that fans were watching. He seemed to regard silence as a curse to avoid.
History’s greatest baseball announcers, like Vin Scully — still going strong after 64 years with the Dodgers at the age of 85 — paint a picture, on radio describing what the listener couldn’t see and on TV complementing what the viewer sees very clearly.
Wheeler never recognized the difference, and no one at the Phillies or Comcast SportsNet did either.
So during the period when Wheeler held forth, originally with two giants — Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn — and lately with Tom McCarthy, a fine TV announcer, the mute button was a real baseball’s fan’s best friend.
Matthews, who played on the Wheeze Kids 1983 World Series Phils that lost to the Orioles, was an informed and pleasant analyst. And he will be missed. But Sarge was an unwitting pawn in a negotiation that ended up costing Comcast significantly less than it would have had the Phils not tanked the last two seasons.
Comcast is run by brilliant business people and negotiators. And they can assure their advertisers that the reason many Phils fans hit their mute button is now gone so their spots will be heard as well as seen.
You want to know how smart Comcast is? Ten years ago, it lost a $54 billion bid for Disney, which owns ESPN. Five years later it hit pay dirt with a $30 billion bid for NBC Universal. And today it is reaping the benefits of its buy-low method of acquisition. The 2012 London Olympics actually made money, which is unheard of, and the just completed Sochi Olympics just might too.
We’ll never know who negotiated for the Phillies and Comcast because they won’t tell us. Winners and losers have to live in the same town, after all, and Philly is a gentleman’s agreement place. No bragging. No fist-pumping. No spiking in the end zone.
But it is very clear that the Phils left lots of money on the table. Maybe billions.
The Dodgers hit the jackpot last summer with a 25-year deal with Time Warner Cable — which Comcast is on the verge of acquiring —for a reported $8 billion, more than three times what the Phils will get.
Of course, the LA metro TV market has almost twice as many TV homes as Philly — 5.6 million compared to 2.9 million, according to Neilsen. But the Phils didn’t even try to maximize its deal. They inexplicably chose to negotiate with Comcast and Comcast only.
Last fall, sports TV business watchers expected Fox Sports to bid against Comcast here since Fox had competed against Time Warner for the Dodgers rights that it once held.
But because the Phils didn’t want to rock the boat they negotiated only with Comcast, which bought those rights at a rock-bottom price.
If the Phils were run by real entrepreneurs they would have started their own network like the Yankees (YES) and Red Sox (NESN) have, or at least used that prospect as leverage with Comcast.
But no. Phillies management kept their head down and accepted what Comcast offered. After all, the weak-kneed Phils must have thought, “If we started our own network wouldn’t Comcast charge us an arm and a leg to get on its choice digital menu?”
No, because then the team would have had all the leverage. Can you imagine getting a Comcast cable bill for a menu that didn’t include the Phillies? You would have had the choice of DirecTV, whose current subscribers are not permitted the honor of viewing Comcast SportsNet. Not to mention FIOS.
So what are the Phillies going to do with all the extra cash from TV? If only the Phils had a decent scouting system to draft blue-chippers and a Billy Beane-like general manager.
Instead, the farm system is empty because the Phils have incompetent scouts. And Ruben Amaro Jr. is so far in over his head that other general managers can’t wait for him to call at the trade deadline. Too late to do anything of note.
The Phillies are baseball’s only big market team that operates with a small market mentality.