Not many can offer insight on the sports TV landscape and how the groundwork was laid over the past 25 years as sagely as Harvey Schiller. Frankly, it's surprising he hasn't written a book. His impressively varied career has included leading the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and helping the highly successful YES Network get off the ground. In between, he served as executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee and head of Turner Broadcasting's sports operations.
So, he's negotiated Olympic TV rights deals, overseen NFL broadcasts and developed a regional sports network -- all right in line with catalysts in sports TV today. The characters alone he has worked with, from Juan Antonio Samaranch to Ted Turner to Hulk Hogan (as head of the WCW) to George Steinbrenner, might fill 400 pages.
And those are just in the sports part of Schiller's working life. He was recruited to play football at the Citadel by Al Davis. Before taking over the SEC in 1986, Schiller had a lengthy career in the Air Force as a pilot, rising to Brigadier General. He now heads a company that offers advice on mitigating risk, including in corporate security.
Maybe that tenure -- the business has considerable secrecy -- needs to end before he takes up the pen. For now, though, he's got opinions and yarns to spin. How about Turner Broadcasting failing to keep Sunday night NFL games after 1997? ESPN grabbed the full Sunday-night package and was able to use that as leverage in successful negotiations with operators for carriage fees. The NFL wanted about $300 million each from Turner and ESPN to continue sharing the games, Schiller said, but top executives at Time Warner, which bought Turner in 1996, balked.
"To this day, I think that was a major mistake," said Schiller, who led Turner Sports from 1994-99. "It gave all the content to ESPN and they were able to adjust their rates almost immediately." Had Ted Turner still controlled his namesake company, Schiller says he wouldn't have turned down the NFL and the loss of the games really affected Turner. Since then, as TNT and TBS have become wealthier, the pair have made a major push into sports with acquisitions of rights to the Major League Baseball playoffs and NCAA tournament, but the NFL stands alone.
Sports rights fees continue to rise and, like many, Schiller says that isn't stopping anytime soon, if ever. "I'm not sure there's a limit ... (sports) is exponentially more valuable than anything else on television in terms of what advertisers are interested in," he said.
And then, there are those affiliate fees that may dwarf ad revenue in some cases. Schiller said he left Turner to join the company that launched the New York Yankees' YES Network largely because team owner George Steinbrenner painted a persuasive vision of a successful network, which Steinbrenner had wanted for some time. Schiller left the operation just before the network launched in 2002.
At Turner, one of his duties was overseeing the Atlanta Thrashers NHL team, which had just left the city for Winnipeg after failing to draw recent fan support. Schiller acknowledges it was an uphill battle, with Atlanta a sort of fair-weather pro sports area. "I think Atlanta is a great sports town for college sports," he said. "So many of the graduates of the Southeastern Conference and the ACC wind up there." He cited a joke about the Atlanta Hawks, also a former Turner property, that when you leave two tickets on your windshield and come back, there are four.
As the former SEC Commissioner, Schiller said the league's addition of Texas A&M makes sense with all the TV homes in Texas, but he's not sure if the possible addition of Missouri is a good fit. And after having negotiated local radio deals for Atlanta teams, he said anyone who thinks radio has lost its punch as an important outlet for baseball with TV so dominant is misguided.
The matter has particular significance in New York now, as the Yankees consider whether to stay with a CBS-owned AM station or try something different, be it another flagship outlet or perhaps a dual AM-FM feed. "Radio is still a major player in baseball," Schiller said, noting that radio's sports power should only increase with a demand for more multi-language broadcasts. Makes sense, which suggests his book should have a predictions section as well.