By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Ever have something come out of nowhere to remind you about the relatively distant past?
Let’s hope so. Otherwise, this essay may be pretty boring.
A while ago, the website Grantland had an article on Sports Phone. As the article states, this service definitely was an early Eighties way of catching up with sports news. It was also my employer, on a part-time basis, for six years.
If you don’t know much about the concept, go ahead and read the story. I’ll wait.
As the article mentions, this was something of a New York City invention that at its peak received zillions of calls. I’m sure the peak hours were at night and on the weekends, particularly NFL Sundays, when sports fans (and especially gamblers) had no other way what was finding out what was going on. So they paid a few cents per phone call to hear the latest scores.
Left out of the story was the Buffalo connection. Since the service was doing so well in New York City, New York Telephone asked Phone Programs Inc. (the company that supplied the service) to do a Buffalo version of it in 1980. To do that, it needed some sort of Buffalo sports reporter.
I’m not sure how Phone Programs found me, but I was certainly available. I was working part-time in radio, as a job at a suburban newspaper had fallen apart, and I could use the work. I don’t recall the interview process too well, but I don’t think there was much to it. Soon I became the Buffalo bureau chief … heck, I was the Buffalo bureau.
The work was rather straight-forward. I was expected to give short (30 seconds) reports on the news of the day – Bills and Sabres mostly. I believe I received $5 for each of those reports. That meant I needed to grab the morning paper minutes after waking up, type up the report, and read it to someone back in New York. He’d record it and put it on the service shortly after that.
I was assigned to cover every Bills and Sabres home game. Phone Programs paid to install jacks in the two press boxes, so each game I would bring my phone in a small tote bag, and plug it in. I called in updates on scores and quarter ends, and then collected a few sound bites through interviews for transmission back to the home office. That was good for $35 per game. I also did some local college basketball games, but that was simply updating scores every so often for $10 per game. I recall going to a game with some friends once, and excusing myself every so often to run to a pay phone at Memorial Auditorium. (No cell phones back then.) I explained where I was going, but they probably still thought it was odd. Sports Phone didn’t want anything on the Stallions or Bisons, probably because not many people were betting on indoor soccer back then. Or now.
Sometimes during hockey season, Sports Phone didn’t have anyone in the hosting city of a Sabres game, so I was charged with phoning in the updates. One time the Sabres played a 0-0 game in Quebec, which meant I made $10 for making three phone calls – one after each period. Nice work if you can get it.
At other times, there were conflicts, and I couldn’t be in two places at ones. So I farmed out jobs to friends. Since virtually any sports fan could call in the score, I’d make some calls and find someone, anyone, who could listen to a Niagara basketball game while I was at the Sabres game. Or, if I just wanted to go to a movie for a change. Because I saw a lot of games in that era.
When I counted up everything, including Stallions and Bisons games I covered for WEBR, I believe I saw something like 132 sporting events in Buffalo one year. That may be the all-time record; at least I haven’t heard of someone who has matched it. The money added up by my standards at the time, as I made something like $200 a week on the side during the busy season (December to March). That gave me a quick lesson in the area of “estimated taxes.”
Every sports fan had heard of Sports Phone, thanks to some advertising. When I mentioned I worked for it to a college friend, he answered, “I call them when no one else will talk to me.” But while friends knew I worked for it, I can’t say I remember a single person who mentioned hearing me on it.
This job lasted a few years, until somewhere in the 1984-86 range. I started to hear stories that Sports Phone was having financial difficulties, although it’s not like I had a boss who checked in with me regularly. But one summer day, the man who hired me called to say the Buffalo service was coming to an end. He still wanted me to cover games involving New York teams, but the “gravy train” was essentially over.
The story from Grantland actually filled in a few gaps in my knowledge of the organization, and the history of Sports Phone. I had no idea that Gary Cohen, Howie Ross and Al Trautwig were fellow alumni, and I had fun reading about Andy Roth – whose name I remembered from those days.
Looking back from 30 years later, my memories of Sports Phone are generally good ones. I hung out with a lot of good people in the form of sports journalists, saw many good games, and got a graduate course in the business. The money, such as it was, even paid some bills. I guess you’d call it “paying your dues” now, but in hindsight it sure seemed liked I was getting paid for something I liked to do.
That’s still the case now most of the time. Maybe Sports Phone is a reason for that.
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