US Open and Bill MacPhail

Forty-eight years ago, Bill MacPhail, then in charge of sports at CBS, signed a deal with the US Tennis Open to carry its tennis matches, men's and women's, on the CBS network. That deal died last year and in 2015 you'll have to watch them on ESPN.

I knew Bill MacPhail from 1976 until his death in 1996. In the late seventies he helped me get sports rights for the Independent Television News Association, a cooperative that I had launched with the help of WPIX News Director John Corporon and the Chicago Tribune Company. Bill, who by then had left CBS, retained his friends in the sports world and whenever I had trouble I'd call Bill and he'd help me get the right to cover the event.

As I was starting CNN in 1979, I discovered that Ted Turner, the owner of CNN, was not popular with the competing sports companies because he was putting his baseball games on satellite covering the entire United States, creating new fans for the Atlanta Braves and cutting into the audience for CBS, NBC and ABC. When I found difficulties in getting their consent to covering then retransmitting up to two minutes of their games, I called Bill and named him CNN's Vice President of Sports.

Within a week, he'd gotten Pete Rozelle, at whose wedding he had been best man, and got rights to the NFL for us. As for baseball, Bill's father had invented night baseball and gone on to become President of the New York Yankees. We had no problems there either. He had no special connection to basketball but the NBA wasn't going to be kept out if the NFL and the MLB were getting airtime. Bill also took care of tennis and golf for us. In 1973, when Secretariat was winning The Triple Crown, he was appearing on CBS.

When we went on the air, Bill MacPhail had everything covered. He even got us rights to a Heavyweight Championship fight that lasted less than 3 minutes. Bill had been sure to get a contract that specified we'd had the rights to show 2 minutes of the event. HBO was not pleased.

Years earlier, MacPhail had brought the first Olympics to the US on an under-the-sea cable and arranged for CBS to have exclusive access to the NFL championships.

But now that tennis is the property of ESPN, all that remains of MacPhalia is The Masters, perhaps golf's greatest championship. It was also MacPhail's favorite event. The Masters is an event for gentlemen and MacPhail was always a gentleman. The Masters wanted fewer commercials during the event, MacPhail agreed immediately. He also made sure that CBS employees at The Masters behaved like gentlemen. That tradition continues.
CBS continues to cover The Masters, and with the loss of the US Tennis Opens it is the last remaining symbol of Bill MacPhail's achievements. MacPhail built the greatest sports network in US history, but new networks bidding ever higher sums have made it impossible for any network to dominate as CBS did.

Bill MacPhail must be turning over in his grave.