Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Chapter 5--The Comets And The Media

In this installment, I will examine (and rant about) the media coverage (or lack thereof) given to my favorite pro sports entity of all-time...

Local media coverage of the Kansas City Comets indoor soccer franchise sucked like a Hoover vacuum cleaner throughout their existence.  While the Chiefs, Royals and KU basketball received the lion’s share of attention on the front pages of The Kansas City Star Sports section, the Comets barely rated a mention on Page 12 next to the tire ads most of the time.  When the team folded in July, 1991, the Star devoted the better part of three whole pages to the Comets, which was more than they’d cumulatively written about the team in the three years prior to that!

Then there was KCMO/KCTV-5’s “special coverage” (as they called it) of Comets game telecasts, featuring sports anchors Don Fortune (nee Forunato) and the ever-pompous Jack Harry, neither of whom knew a damn thing about the sport they were covering.  Between the two of them, Comets fans were subjected to such insightful commentary as “Both teams really want to win this game,” and about the only soccer term Harry ever bothered to learn was “one-timer”.  Fortune was particularly annoying with bon mots like “Both of these two teams” and he often redundantly reinforced his points with “He really does,” or “They really did,” or “It really is,” and you could usually tell by the tone of their voices that neither Fortune nor Harry really wanted to be there doing the games—they really didn’t!  DF also had this irritating habit of calling defender Kim Roentved “Kimmy”, even though no one else ever dared to call the man by that name.  Once at a game in Wichita in the early days, both of these two guys (pun intended) openly complained about the loud music playing overhead on the Kansas Coliseum P.A. system, calling it “bush league” of the Wings to do this while the game was going on.  Never mind that this was standard operating procedure in the Major Indoor Soccer League, and the Comets were every bit as guilty of it at Kemper Arena as Wichita was in their place.  Someone in the Comets front office finally got wise in the later years and convinced Channel 5 to at least pull Harry from the broadcast booth and replace him with former and/or current players like Enzo DiPede and Mike Dowler to provide color commentary, which helped some.  Don Fortune retired and moved off to Florida years ago, but Jack Harry remains on the air as sports anchor at Channel 41 here, and he’s an even more arrogant grandstanding blowhard jerk than he was 20 years ago.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, then there was the half-assed way Comets TV games were handled on KCTV.  The team was treated like a red-headed stepchild by Channel 5 throughout their entire existence, as the station would only air their games when it was convenient for them.  Many Comets telecasts originated from San Diego, Tacoma and L.A. and usually started at 9:30PM, K.C. time, but quite often, Channel 5 would join these West Coast matches in-progress at 10:30 following their “Eyewitless News”.  This usually meant the game broadcast began with two minutes or less remaining in the 2nd quarter, so in effect, they were sending their people all the way across two time zones just to cover half a soccer game!  In early 1991, a Sunday afternoon game from Baltimore was joined with ten whole seconds left in the 1st quarter following a CBS college basketball telecast of UNLV and Arkansas that no one here in KC gave a rip about.  In 1989, a Sunday afternoon broadcast from Wichita was tape-delayed--until 10:45 that night, more than eight hours after the game started!  Yet another time, during a game from Wichita, Channel 5 lost its broadcast feed about 9:45PM.  They went with live radio play-by-play in the interim and abandoned the broadcast altogether when the news came on at 10:00, even though the game wasn’t over yet!  I have no doubt they did this on purpose.  It’s funny how Channel 5 was loathe to pre-empt weeknight prime-time CBS programming in favor of Comets games, yet it was perfectly okey-dokey to do so whenever Billy Graham did one of his weeklong “crusades” every other month or when Channel 5 would air their self-serving "For Kids' Sake" and "The Best of Call For Action" programs.  And heaven forbid that Channel 5 viewers would’ve ever had to go without “Wheel Of Fortune” for an evening now and then—a 1990 Comets game from Cleveland that started at 6:30, Central time, didn’t hit the air until 7:00 after most of the 1st quarter expired just so all the Rain Men around town wouldn’t miss their Pat and Vanna fix for the night.

Ironically, the very LAST Comets telecast was SportsChannel America's broadcast of Game 2 of the 1991 playoffs from Wichita carried on local TV by Channel 62, which is Channel 5’s sister station today.  Channel 62 succeeded at something Channel 5 had failed to do throughout the 1990-91 season—televise a Comets game live in its entirety!  In a nutshell, KCTV-5’s “special coverage” of the Comets was an absolute joke.  Unfortunately back then, the team didn’t have many choices when it came to TV outlets, unlike today with cable stations like Metro Sports and even Channel 29, who carried most of the Kansas City Wizards games on TV this season.  However, a select few Comets games in the late ‘80s aired locally on American Cablevision (now Time-Warner) with KKJC-AM Sports Director Chuck Heinz (my radio co-hort at the time, #57 in your program, naturally) and retired Comets defender Clive Griffiths at the mics.  Chuck and Clive’s on-air performances far outclassed anything Channel 5 ever did for the Comets.  Chuck even sought my help on learning the pronunciation of some of the players names, which I was only to happy to coach him on, like "Margetic—sounds kinda like 'my headache'; Boncek = BON-check", etc.  Here's a little sample of Chuck and Clive's work, courtesy of a fellow MISL junkie who amassed a nice library of games on VHS back in the day.  Just as an aside, I think I remember Chuck telling me about how he (or it might've been Clive) once spilled a full cup of soda and ice out of the press box perched on high at the mighty St. Louis Arena onto some poor unsuspecting soul below him in the stands during a broadcast.  Oops…

On radio, things were far more professional for the Comets, thanks to the enthusiasm of announcer Kevin Wall, the only radio play-by-play man the team ever had.  That's him about 20 seconds into this video, and you can hear some of his radio calls scattered throughout, as well.  Kevin joined midway through the first season in 1981-82 (Comets games didn't even air on radio initially) and remained until the bitter end, and he did an excellent job of describing the on-field action and keeping even the casual fan glued to their radio, all the while promoting the Comets as much as humanly possible.  On the air, Kevin was the indoor soccer equivalent of the Seattle Mariners' legendary Hall of Fame screamer Dave Niehaus, and I loved his trademark “GOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLL!!!!!” calls.  He was sometimes accused of being a “homer”, but I thought he was pretty objective most of the time, and if the Comets sucked on a given night, he would say so.  Wall (not to be confused with the media entreprenuer or the conservative talk show host of the same names) was new to indoor soccer when he began his gig with the Comets, but he at least took the time to familiarize himself with the nuances of the indoor game, unlike his TV counterparts on Channel 5.  KW remained on KC airwaves briefly after the Comets demise, then relocated to Tacoma to do sports talk radio there, and last I heard, he was in Detroit doing the same.

In spite of Wall’s brilliance at the mic, Comets radio broadcasts were still often subjected to the same shabby treatment they got on TV.  Example:  A Comets home game broadcast in early ’91 was interrupted midway through as 980 KMBZ broke away at 9:10PM to carry a West Coast K.U. Jayhawks men’s basketball game in its entirety—including the endless pre- and post-game shows—before resuming the Comets broadcast on tape-delay around Midnight.  In the last season or two, head coach Dave Clements’ weekly call-in show originated practically everywhere but the KMBZ studios themselves, as they constantly did remotes from various locations around the city and poor Clemo was expected to traipse all over town just to do his own show.  You think the Chiefs’ station woulda made Marty Schottenheimer do this?  I think not.  One “Clemo Show” was truncated just so KMBZ host John Doolittle could interview Nebraska head basketball coach Danny Nee before their “big” game with my alma mater UMKC—they had all friggin’ afternoon to do that!  KMBZ also rubbed a little salt in the wound for us Comets fans by continuing to run station promos well into 1992 that said, “Your home for the Royals, Jayhawks, Comets and Kangaroos--Sports Radio 980-KMBZ…” for several months after the Comets folded in the summer of '91.  I actually called the station and pointed out the error of their ways, and the boob I spoke to didn’t even believe me at first.

What, me bitter?  Nahhhh....