Dying to know the favorite fare of Charlotte Hornets point guard Muggsy Bogues? A touch-tone phone and about $5 will give you the answer: seafood.
Looking for gambling advice on the Minnesota-Sacramento game? A $15 call to ``Stan Lisowski's Heatseekers'' will tell you to take the Timberwolves giving 12. On the other hand, a $33 call to ``Kitty and Her Pick of the Litter'' will suggest betting on the Kings.
Or perhaps you already have all the answers. If, for example, you can name Johnny Gooch's employer in 1923 and are willing to spend $14 on a phone call, you might win a satin jacket from a sports trivia contest. Gooch, of course, was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The hucksters of the sports world have discovered the telephone. The medium may be 115 years old, but the message is new: Through the use of ``1-900'' services, the phone can be a moneymaker - perhaps the biggest to hit sports since the advent of cable television.
The lines can be a windfall for the folks who set them up, but not for consumers. Too often, the information they offer is stale, frivolous or just plain wrong. It is an industry with dizzying turnover: Last week's betting-tip number often becomes this week's lottery hotline; last week's trivia contest becomes this week's horoscope. ``Largely, they're a rip-off,'' one consumer advocate warned. ``Consumers are being cheated.''
Beyond that, there is the hefty - sometimes mind-boggling -
cost. An advertised rate of $1 or $2 a minute sounds cheap, but like carnival barkers, the services have ways of keeping callers on the line while the meter runs. A 900-line junkie can easily ring up phone bills exceeding $100 an hour to glean recruiting news from dozens of colleges, hear a live broadcast of an NHL game and get endless points of view on the Las Vegas odds. The caller's chances of winning back some of that money through 900-line contests are negligible.
``The commissioner should never have let Dexter Manley back into the NFL. The more chances you keep giving people, the more people break the rules.'' - Quarterback and 900-line pioneer Jim McMahon.
In the beginning - about five years ago - the use of 900 lines (and local 976 exchanges) was
largely limited to dial-a-porn programs and instant phone polls. Then, clever entrepreneurs discovered a vast audience of Americans willing to pay $2 or more a minute to chat with other lonely people or hear prerecorded messages from rock stars. One 900 line featuring rap stars DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince reportedly generated $8 million in its first year.
Since then, growth has been phenomenal. About $871 million (or about $3.50 per American) was spent calling 900 numbers last year, according to Strategic TeleMedia, a market research firm. That's almost double the amount spent in 1989, but less than half of what is projected for 1992.
The number of 900 lines increased from 2,600 in 1989 to 10,100 in 1990. About 15 percent are sports-related, according to industry experts.
The first athlete to seriously challenge the rap and rock stars with a personal 900 line was Jose Canseco. ``DIAL-JOSE'' debuted in September 1989, with the Oakland A's outfielder offering his viewpoint on the hassles of celebrity and how it felt to become baseball's first 40-40 man.
The line was an instant hit, generating more than $500,000 in the first two months - with Canseco getting 75 percent of the take. Interest slowed during the 1990 season, with about $150,000 in calls coming in.
``The novelty wears off on these things,'' said Charley DeNatale, director of marketing for Audio Communications Inc., which has marketed more than 50 celebrity lines. ``But Jose was a great success with our usual target audience - 14- to 18-year-old girls. They wanted to hear what he had to say.''
But why? Certainly, there is no shortage of Canseco coverage in other media. So why pay $2 a minute to hear him expound on life as a twin?
``There's an intimacy to the phone that you can't get from TV or newspapers, even if it is a recording,'' DeNatale said. ``Besides, in Jose's case, he said some things - about steroids and his speeding tickets - that he wouldn't talk about to the media. There was some interesting stuff.''
``Hi, this is Penn State basketball coach Bruce Parkhill. Today, I'm going to talk about one of our former players, Eddie Fogell, who graduated last year. . . . Eddie had a tryout last spring with the Orlando Magic, and now he's playing with Sumitomo Metal Industries in Japan. His team is doing very well.''
These days, everyone who's anyone in sports (and a few who aren't) has a personal 900 number. From your easy chair, you can punch up the daily thoughts of coaches (Don Nelson, Lefty Driesell) players (Eric Davis, Boomer Esiason), broadcasters (Hank Stram, Norm Hitzges).
The problem, however, is that most of these great communicators have little to say. Put Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight in a roomful of reporters and he becomes a bubbling vat of nitroglycerine. Put him in front of a running tape recorder and he turns into Pat Boone. Likewise, folks calling UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian expecting to hear a diatribe against the NCAA will be disappointed. For $1.49 per minute, ``Tark the Shark'' praises Michigan State forward Steve Smith one day, calls Ohio State ``really impressive'' the next.
``A lot of these lines come and go because the celebrity isn't exciting enough to generate repeated calls,'' said Chris Gettings, vice president of GV Communications Corp., which has set up lines for several athletes. ``What works, in terms of staying power, is controversy.''
For that reason, perhaps, one program that failed was ``The Quarterback Corner,'' which featured Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, Esiason, McMahon and Dan Marino.
``That was a good line - lots of informative commentary - but it didn't take off, I guess, because the quarterbacks talked about football and not themselves,'' Gettings said. ``This business is so new that it's still hard to predict what will draw people's attention.''
What has worked is narrow-niche marketing. Among the most successful 900 lines are those focusing on bass fishing, body building, water skiing and auto racing. (``Hey, Scott Pruett fans, I've got good news. Scott has received medical approval to return to the cockpit.'')
Typically, the athlete gets 50 percent of the money his phone line generates (Canseco got more because he did his own marketing and promotion). For that, he is expected to offer thoughts on at least a half-dozen topics each day. And because callers pay by the minute, talking slowly is a big plus.
``Hello, Taurus. You've really been on a high lunar cycle for most of this month. If you've used your abilities wisely, you should have won on just about everything you bet on. . . . This is a gambler's month, jump into the game, be a player on the grand scale. Your good numbers: 1, 10, 5, 20, 33 and 40. These all look good for the lottery.'' - Players Horoscope, $2 a minute.
For the record, those numbers produced no winning tickets in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware lotteries the day they were deemed lucky. But the 900-line gamblers' horoscope makes no promises.
Neither do any of the dozens of tout services, which are the fastest-growing segment of the sports-related 900 business. The services use phrases such as ``diamond-studded play'' and ``Rolls-Royce selection.'' They boast odds-defying winning percentages. But they root for you to win only because that makes it more likely that you will call back.
Gambling on sports is illegal in most states, but dispensing information on gambling is not. The services don't book your bets; they only tell you that the Buffalo Bills tend to lose on grass or the Boston Celtics usually beat the point spread when Larry Bird is healthy.
The 900 industry has been a bonanza for tout services. Formerly, they relied on subscribers paying hundreds of dollars for a season's worth of selections. Now they can attract more customers by taking out a phone line and some newspaper ads, and charging anywhere from $2 a minute to $50 a call for their wisdom. Some have used former greats such as Johnny Unitas, Walt Michaels and Hank Stram as front men.
But do they really know what they're talking about?
``My question has always been, if they're so good and make money every year, why don't they bet themselves?'' said Scott Kaminsky, office manager for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the firm that sets the odds that the touts try to beat. ``I've found that 95 percent of them do not know more than the typical fan. I honestly don't know why people call them.''
Calls by The Inquirer to three separate services over a four-day period produced an overall record of 25-23, not much better than a coin flip and a fraction short of the 52.4 winning percentage that a gambler needs to break even, factoring in the vigorish, the bookie's cut. And that, of course, doesn't include the cost of the calls.
As price varies, so too does the amount of information and length of the tapes. Tipster Stan Lisowski, who runs services called ``Live Wire'' and ``Heatseekers,'' charges a flat $15 per call. For that, he dispenses eight picks with such a rapid-fire delivery that it's difficult to write each one down. Since Lisowski already has your money, the idea seems to be to get you off the phone as quickly as possible to free up the line.
At the other end of the spectrum is ``Kitty, the First Lady of Basketball.'' The service seems to combine gambling with sex-talk lines by having advice read to you by a come-hither, husky-voiced woman.
And, at $3 a minute, the information comes slowly. Indeed, no tips were given in the first six minutes, which is instead a recitation of injury reports and point spreads. Only after 11 minutes - and $33 - does the caller get all four selections.
How much does ``Kitty'' really know? That's difficult to say, but consider this: One day she advised callers to bet on the Charlotte Hornets because of the team's improved play since the acquisition of center ``Mike Gamski,'' who was known as Mike Gminski when he left the 76ers.
``In other baseball news, the bidding for the 15 second-look free agents will be very, very high. . . . The Rangers are pursuing Wally Backman and Mike Pagliarulo. . . . The Houston Astros are considering dealing Glenn Davis, not that that makes any sense, does it?'' - ESPN baseball commentator Norm Hitzges, 95 cents a minute.
In two of those three offerings, the speed-talking Hitzges proved prescient. One problem, however: Hitzges recorded his baseball notes back in early December. As of last week, callers to his 900 services were still receiving the same, now obsolete, message.
Other calls resulted in other problems. A call to Esiason's advertised line connected with a national lottery hotline, apparently a common problem, given the industry's high turnover rate. Some lines ignore rules requiring them to recite the price up front and to offer a 10-second period in which the caller may hang up without being charged.
A San Francisco-based advocacy group, ConsumerAction, studied 140 different 900 lines last year and concluded, according to executive director Ken McEldowney, that ``largely, they're a rip-off. Price disclosure is often poor, some messages never change, and consumers are being cheated.''
McEldowney's biggest gripe was with 900-line contests, a few of which offer prizes up to $1 million. ``Some contests are impossible to win, others are just like a lottery,'' he said. ``Some give awards to people who get the most points, which translates to people who call in the most and spend the most money.''
Last year, a 900 line promising a chance to win tickets to the Super Bowl was disconnected after a California judge ruled that it constituted an illegal lottery by charging callers $6 to enter the contest. The state sued the phone line's sponsor, Tyree Communications Inc., and its spokesman, baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. The suit was settled out of court.
Another common complaint about 900 lines comes from parents who discover exorbitant phone bills rung up by their children. A Port Reading, N.J., woman complained to her state legislator recently after discovering that her teenage son made 16 calls totaling $400 to a basketball tout service called ``Sportspiks.'' The son explained that he thought the calls were 25 cents each - not $25.
In response, Assemblyman Joseph A. Mecca, D-Passaic, filed a bill last month requiring 900-line operators to detail charges at the beginning of all calls and to give the name and address of the firm providing the line. Unsatisfied callers could also seek redress with the state.
Predictably, those who sponsor 900 programs downplay the problems. DeNatale said complaints about children running up large phone bills were fairly common three years ago, but now are virtually nonexistent. Still, his firm established a fund to compensate parents - once - who complained that their kids called his numbers without permission.
``Parents are more aware of the medium now,'' he said. ``We'll pay you back once, but if you can't stop your kid from dialing a 900 number after that, then there's something wrong in your family.''
``Dan McGwire has solidified his position as the No. 1 quarterback prospect. He could be a top 10 pick, possibly because the Green Bay Packers have been showing some interest. . . . Todd Marinovich has decided to come out, and he projects into the third or fourth round.'' - NFL draft junkie Mel Kiper Jr., $2 the first minute, $1 each additional minute.
Because the 900 industry is so new, no one can confidently predict where it is headed. In terms of sports, the next big push seems likely to be in the area of rotisserie leagues.
And there are other areas that seem ripe for development:
-- Team fan lines. What works for Jose should be able to work for the A's. That's why several teams have started 900 hotlines. Call the Washington Capitals, for example, and you can get a daily message from your favorite player by punching in his uniform number. The Flyers hope to have a similar line running by the end of this season.
-- Play-by-play. Consider die-hard Flyers fans who have moved away but still crave to hear their favorite team broadcast by its home-town announcers. Now they can, through a line run by TRZ Services of Cleveland. The company has contracts with all 21 NHL clubs, 21 of the 28 NFL teams (not the Eagles) and 51 colleges. Fans call a specific number for each team and tune into the broadcast, paying by the minute.
-- Television. ESPN ran a pilot episode last month for a sports trivia game show that allows viewers to compete for prizes through an interactive 900 number.
``The whole industry is going to grow and sports will grow with it,'' predicted Bruce Fogel, president of Phone Programs, the firm that started the score phone business 18 years ago. ``People want more forms of entertainment than they used to and they crave instant information. They're not willing to wait for the morning paper or radio news. We'll do well as long as there are sports fans and people who put a quid or two on the game.''