Remembering 'Sports Phone,' The Go-To Service For Sports Fans, Gamblers

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Back before the Internet, Twitter and smart phones, if you missed the 11:00 p.m. news and you didn't want to wait for the morning paper, you could get sports scores from Andy Roth:

After some trial and error, Sports Phone began in New York City in the mid-1970s and lasted until 2000. From 1979 to 1990, Roth worked there. For a dime, sports fans could dial 976-1313 and they’d hear 57 seconds worth of scores and sports news.

"That’s what we did," Roth said. "Now you wanna know something: you should have heard when there were 60, 70 games a night between NBA, NHL and college basketball. We actually had an additional line and we’d have to read about close to 30 scores in 57 seconds."

Joe DeLessio wrote a remembrance of the service Sports Phone for Grantland, and he joined Bill Littlefield to share what he learned.

BL: So who was calling up Sports Phone? Because I have a feeling it wasn’t only avid sports fans…

Some employers were starting to block the number from their offices because they were sick of paying for all these calls.

Joe DeLessio

JD: No, it was a couple of different types of people. The biggest probably group was gamblers who had money on these games, and they wanted to know whether they were going to win or lose money, and it was well worth their dime to call up this number maybe six, seven, eight, 20 times a night to find out the scores.

It's funny, the other group — I've been hearing a lot of people on Twitter lately telling me they used to call all the time and they then would get in a lot of trouble with their parents because they would get the phone bill with all of these 976 calls and they'd have some explaining to do.

BL: How many people were using this service?

JD: Right off the bat they were getting a lot of people. I mean, they were getting upwards of 50 million calls, sometimes even more, a year. I think by the early '90s the number I saw was they'd gotten almost a billion phone calls from people looking to get scores.

BL: How did the people making these little recordings for Sports Phone go about getting the scores?

JD: You know, it actually kind of evolved over time. At first they were pulling them off of Western Union ticker. They were getting the scores through a wire service. And that really wasn't fast enough because sportsmen wanted to get these scores every just few minutes, and the tickers weren't updated that fast.

So they were starting to call press boxes directly to get information and then sometimes they would just pay reporters who were covering the game already 20 -- something like that — bucks a night to phone in scores as sort of a stringer. And for the local games, they would actually send a beat reporter. So they would actually have someone at Yankee Stadium or at Madison Square Garden calling in scores, giving updates the way that radio stations still do to this day.

BL: How did Sports Phone and the messages provided change over the years?

JD: Well, they did a few things. One is they expanded into other cities: into Chicago and into Detroit and a bunch of other cities. They added a second line for busy Saturdays when there were lots of college basketball games, and they added an interactive line where you could call up and, instead of getting a recorded message, you'd actually talk to a live human being. And they would tell you not just the scores, but they could give you a play-by-play of a game to some degree. I mean they could give you a lot of really specific information that you wouldn't be able to get really anywhere else.

BL: Sports Phone's popularity in New York brought competition in 1987, but not on another phone line: on the airwaves. Explain that, please. 

JD: Sure. Well, in 1987 WFAN launched in New York. And WFAN was the first 24-hour, local sports radio station. And right off the bat, WFAN made no secret that they were going after Sports Phone and going after their sort of market share. And you know one of the first promos they ever ran, 15, 20 minutes into their first-ever broadcast in July of 1987 said, "We just made Sports Phone yesterday's news," or something like that.

BL: And the collapse of the empire was eminent. 

[sidebar title="Vince Lombardi's $20K Sweater" width="630" align="right"]When the McEvoys stopped by a Goodwill in North Carolina, they bought a sweater for $0.58. Then they found out it was once owned by Vince Lombardi.[/sidebar]JD: Yeah, you know it had really already started by then because, by then, some employers were starting to block the number from their offices because they were sick of paying for all these calls. But yeah, that was not a good thing for Sports Phone — that and what was coming after in the '90s in terms of technology, that's what really started to do them in.

BL: How did Sports Phone last until the year 2000? Because I admit, I was astonished to learn that you could still contact Sports Phone as late as then. 

JD: It wasn't doing well by the end. They were getting enough calls, I guess, from gamblers to sort of break even. And part of it was they weren't really paying their employees very much, which helped. Everyone tells me ... they loved the job but it didn't pay well.

So it hung on 'til the late '90s and then for the last two years from '98 to 2000 it was really a small operation; just a handful of people getting the scores off the computer themselves and just reading them off over the phone. It was a very small operation until at that point it just made no sense to keep it going.

BL: Does Sports Phone have a legacy?

JD: I think it does. I mean, a lot of really successful broadcasters went onto careers after starting out at Sports Phone, who started there, making not a lot of money, answering phones or producing shows or doing these one-minute phone updates.

So it sort of was — a couple people sort of described to me —  it was sort of like the minor leagues of broadcasting. It was sort of an alternative to going and working in some far-flung city away from New York, and instead they could stay. A lot of these guys are from New York. They could stay in the city and sort of work their way up without actually having to leave the city which was sort of an interesting way of putting it.

This segment aired on February 28, 2015.



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