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Advantage, Pay Per View? Don't Count On It


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ADVANTAGE, PAY-PER-VIEW? DON'T COUNT ON IT

He's still plenty feisty, and his forehand isn't bad. But lately, Jimmy Connors, tennis' 40-year-old bad boy, has done better in Nuprin pain-reliever ads than in the ad court. Now, pitted against the equally legendary--and five years younger--Martina Navratilova in a $500,000 winner-take-all exhibition, Connors is aiming to provide a little relief for another ailing body: pay-per-view television.

Pay-per-view, for the past decade the driving force behind those multimillion-dollar boxing purses, has recently absorbed a flurry of body blows. TVKO, Time Warner Inc.'s hugely hyped attempt to force-feed a monthly boxing card to the public, has quietly retreated to an occasional bout. General Electric Co.'s NBC unit lost an estimated $100 million on its Triplecast of the Olympic Games from Barcelona. Now, Jimmy and Martina will test whether American viewers will buy what they usually get for free: tennis played by top stars.

Does anyone really want to see Connors and Navratilova, neither of whom got very far in the latest U.S. Open, clash on the outdoor court at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 25? It won't even be a real match--Connors is limited to one serve, and Navratilova can hit into a wider court. And unlike 1973's tilt between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, which nearly sold out the 54,000-seat Astrodome, there's no real antipathy between Connors and Navratilova. "It's a show, purely entertainment," admits former tennis great Chris Evert. "It means nothing in terms of men vs. women."

JOINT PAIN. In short, pay-per-view could suffer another embarrassment. Its financial backers should do better. The entire affair, says promoter Rick Kulis, is likely to cost less than $4 million--a far cry from the $40 million it cost to stage the 1991 Evander Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight fight or even the $6 million it took to put super-lightweight Julio Cesar Chavez and Hector (Macho) Camacho together in a title fight on Sept. 12. To get his money back, Kulis says, he needs some 190,000 homes to pay the $24.95 fee. That's roughly 1% of the 22 million homes in which pay-per-view is available.

Is anyone going to sign on? "I'm not sure they will," says Scott Kurnit, president of Showtime Event TV, which turned down the pay-per-view rights. "It would do very well on a network, though." He thinks the tennis match is priced too high. Showtime charged pay-per-viewers an average of $26 for last week's Chavez-Camacho brawl and signed up 1 million homes. But boxing is different, says Kurnit, because you couldn't see either fighter for free.

If the match is a bust, it won't be for lack of promotion. Kulis has spent more than $1 million on television spots, hitting CNN, Turner Broadcasting, and regional sports events. Kulis concedes that he has lined up only one sponsor, Chattanooga-based Chattem Inc., which paid $200,000 to hawk its Flex-all 454 pain-relieving gel. "Advertisers like to know how many people their message will be getting to," admits Kulis, "and I can't tell them that."

HIGH ROLLERS. Connors and Navratilova, despite the winner-take-all hype, will each earn at least $25,000 in appearance money, plus generous expense allowances. Another winner: Caesars. The casino, which gets 25% of the gate at the 14,198-seat outdoor stadium, has bought 1,000 of the top-priced, $100 seats for the high rollers it's flying in for the weekend. But Caesars could do better, frets Caesars World Inc. Chairman Henry Gluck, if the pay-per-view promotion had started earlier. "I'm not sure this was marketed as well as it could have been," says Gluck.

So where does that leave the future of pay-per-view TV? Alive, if not exactly well. Last June's fight between Holyfield and a badly faded Larry Holmes was a big disappointment. Showtime is seeing better results with the ABC college football games it sells in some regions. Then again, the price is only $8.95. After experimenting with concerts, Broadway shows, and even an opera, pay-per-view promoters are beginning to learn that the public will pay big bucks only for a truly blockbuster event. A week before Jimmy and Martina take the court, there's little sign that their showdown merits that description.MARTINA AND JIMMY'S CORPORATE CHEERING SECTION

Company Investment

CAESARS PALACE The hotel-casino is staging the exhibition in its 14,198-seat

outdoor stadium. Rights fees and promotional costs: about $500,000

SEMAPHORE Semaphore, a joint venture between Bertelsmann Music Group and

Thursday Night Concerts, is paying $1.2 million for the rights to show the

match on pay-per-view. Bertelsmann wants to use the telecast to break into TV

entertainment

EVENT

ENTERTAINMENT The promoter of the match, Kulis' Event Entertainment, is putting

up $1.5 million for foreign and home-video rights

CHATTEM The maker of health and beauty aids, headed by former junior tennis

champion Zan Guerry, is paying $200,000 to sponsor the match. It plans to

promote its Flex-all 454 pain reliever

DATA: BW

Ronald Grover in Los Angeles, with Keith G. Felcyn in New York


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