PRISM: The Orignal Regional Sports Network

PRISM logoBefore Comcast SportsNet came about in 1997, there was PRISM. No, not the NSA’s mass surveillance program, but rather the cable television channel, Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies. PRISM was launched in 1976 as a joint venture between Ed Snider’s Spectacor and 20th Century Fox. For a subscription fee of around $12, Philadelphians had, for the first time, the ability to watch all Flyers, Phillies, and Sixers home games, all Big 5 basketball matchups, and all WWF events held at the Spectrum.

In addition to broadcasting live sporting events, PRISM showed a variety of other programming. Under the direction of Sport Director Jim Barniak, PRISM and its sister station SportsChannel Philadelphia, had a slew of sport talk shows and anthologies (The Great Sports Debate, Broad and Pattison, and Sports Scrapbook among others), as well as countless movies (and even the occasional late night skin flick). PRISM had it all. However, the station had some teething issues.

PRISM spent the first five years of existence operating at a loss. This could be attributed to the cost of acquiring the rights to broadcast sporting events and movies, as well as management’s reluctance to run advertisements. At launch, PRISM had a grand total of six subscribers. In the early days of cable, there were very few cable providers and the vast majority of American urban areas were not wired for cable. Those who were fortunate enough to live in an area with the necessary wiring faced astronomical costs. In 1976 PRISM’s $12 price tag was the equivalent of $52.20 in 2017 dollars. At a time when gasoline cost $0.59 per gallon, and median income was around $13,000, PRISM was a luxury that many families could simply not afford.

By 1986, PRISM had a subscriber base of approximately 370,000 households in the Philadelphia area. The majority of these subscribers were suburbanites, as much of the actual city of Philadelphia remained unwired for cable. However, there was a slight loophole that Philadelphian’s could exploit. From 1983-1985, the signal for PRISM was broadcast over the air via WWSG Channel 57. The signal was scrambled, however, this scrambled signal was easily decoded with the proper equipment. This arrangement ended after channel 57 was sold to a new owner and changed over to an entertainment channel later to become UPN-57 (now CW Philly).

Ownership of PRISM varied a great deal over the station’s lifetime. Originally a joint venture between Spectacor and 20th Century Fox, the network became fully owned by Spectacor in 1982. Ed Snider’s group would promptly sell PRISM a year later to a joint venture between Rainbow Media and the Washington Post. In 1985, CBS purchased a minority share in the network before cashing out in 1987. The Washington Post also sold its interest in the venture to Rainbow Media, leaving the Cablevision (formerly owned by the Dolan family, now Altice USA) subsidiary as the sole owner. A deal to sell a 50% share to NBC for a 50% Cablevision interest in the new NBC cable channel CNBC fell through in 1989, leaving Cablevision as the sole owner of PRISM until shortly before the channel’s demise.

In 1990, Cablevision launched a sport-specific basic cable channel called SportsChannel. This channel carried PRISM sport events in the event that there was a scheduling conflict. While the channels were affiliated, they maintained their own separate graphics and announcing teams until 1995, when Cablevision created a uniform appearance that was used on both channels. With a growing network of channels, a new 10-year carrier deal with Comcast, and an ever growing subscriber base, life must have been looking pretty sweet to PRISM’s management. Unbeknownst to all, the end was nigh.

The end of PRISM came rather suddenly in the form of the juggernaut that is Comcast. In 1996, Comcast acquired Spectacor and all of its assets, including the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Philadelphia 76ers, the Spectrum, and the new arena now known as the Wells Fargo Center. The new Comcast-Spectacor behemoth announced that they would be allowing the Flyers and Sixers broadcast deals with PRISM to lapse in favor of starting a new regional sports network that would be centered around their team’s games. PRISM had already lost their TV deal with the Big 5 over a monetary dispute (The Big 5 wanted to be paid for the broadcast rights, while Cablevision felt that the Big 5 should have been paying them), and now lost two of their three professional sports broadcast deals. However, there was one saving grace: this new network would take some time to get started. As the Flyers deal had lapsed just after the merger, this meant that the team was without a broadcast partner. Cablevision, believing that they could get a one-year deal on the cheap, sent the Flyers (and thusly Comcast) a low-ball offer. The response from the Flyers was that they would be producing their own broadcasts in-house, and would sell the rights to said broadcasts to local networks until Comcast SportsNet was ready to air. Panicked, Cablevision agreed to a one-year deal worth approximately $5 million dollars.

In the meantime, Cablevision sold a 40% stake in their sports holdings to Fox/Liberty media for a cool $850 million in June of 1997. PRISM was meant to be rolled into the new Fox Sports Networks, with national pieces being mixed in with local content. There was a slight issue with this however, as the Phillies had just jumped ship to Comcast. This left PRISM with no long-term commitments from any sport organization. Fox decided that the best way to handle this was at the negotiating table. In late summer, Comcast and Fox came to an agreement. PRISM and SportsChannel were shutdown on October 1st, 1997, and the Sixers were let out of their broadcast deal. In exchange, SportsChannel’s signal was purchased by Comcast to be used by the new Comcast SportsNet, while PRISM’s signal was retained by Fox/Liberty, and hosted the Premium movie channel Starz!. Just like that, PRISM was gone.

PRISM and SportsChannel undoubtedly changed the course of Philadelphia sports fandom. Prior to PRISM, Philly fans had three options for consuming Philly sports. They could go to the game, listen to it on the radio, or read about it the next day in The Bulletin, Inquirer, or Daily News. They could also hope and pray that their team was good enough to feature on nationally televised games. Outside of the ranks of the dedicated beat writer, the sport media lens was very broad and unfocused. PRISM was a key part in focusing that lens in Philly, and came about at a time where all of the teams were winning. This success, coupled with the ability to watch that success helped to create the Philadelphia superfan of today.


The Philadelphia Stars: Philly’s Negro League Baseball Team

Until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, American Major professional baseball had been segregated. African-American baseball enthusiasts were forced to form their own leagues, known collectively as The Negro Leagues. From 1933-1952, the Philadelphia Stars were the team that represented Philadelphia’s black community. They were founded by Ed Bolden, the former owner of the Hilldale Athletic Club. The team was also partially owned and financed by Eddie Gottlieb, the owner of the SPHAS basketball team and the future owner of the Philadelphia Warriors NBA franchise.  They played at 44th and Parkside in West Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company YMCA Ballpark, except for on Monday nights, when they played at Shibe Park. In 1933, the Stars were an independent team, meaning they were not part of any official league. However, the next year saw them join the Negro National League, the country’s premier baseball league for African Americans.

That initial NNL season would be a great year for the club. Behind the superb pitching of Stuart “Slim” Jones and the hitting of Baseball Hall of Famers Jud Wilson and Biz Mackey, the Stars controversially won the 1934 National Negro League Championship over the Chicago American Giants. During the 6th game, a scuffle broke out in which a Stars’ player apparently touched the Umpire. As this was an ejection worthy offense, Chicago’s manager protested, but the player was not ejected. The Stars would win game 6 to tie up the series at 3-3. The deciding game 7 would be called due to darkness at 4-4. In game 8, Slim Jones would dominate the Giants lineup, pitching a shutout on the way to a 2-0 Stars victory. However, neither team was pleased. The Stars claimed that the Giants used illegal players, while the Giants were upset that there were games played at night. The NNL commissioner threw out both complaints, and the Stars were declared champions. This championship was to be the team’s only triumph in their history. The team’s fortunes slumped with the performance of Slim Jones. Jones died in December of 1938 of pneumonia at age 25 after, allegedly, selling his coat for a bottle of whiskey.

Due to the lack of consistent record keeping in the Negro National League, much of the history of the Stars is unknown.  However, what is known is that they played in the NNL until 1948, when the league went under. After Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the talent level in the Negro Leagues declined severely as black players were poached from their Negro League clubs. This left only the Negro American League for the Stars. The Philadelphia Stars played two more seasons in the NAL before the team folded.

The Stars had some notable players not named Slim Jones. They had several Hall of Famers play for them, including but not limited to: legendary pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige (two separate stints 1945, 1950), Philadelphia’s own Roy Campanella (1944), Jud Wilson (1933-39), and James “Biz“ Mackey (1933-1937). Additionally the Stars fielded 1956 MLB All-Star Harry Simpson (1946-1948), and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, a player-coach for the legendary barnstorming New York Renaissance basketball team. (1940).


A brief history of the Philadelphia Arrows: Philadelphia’s original pro hockey team

Philadelphia ArenaIn autumn of 1927, long before the Flyers were even a glimmer in the eye of Ed Snider, Philadelphia received its first professional ice hockey team: the Philadelphia Arrows of the Canadian-American Hockey League, a minor league.

The Arrows played their home games at Philadelphia Arena, located on the 4500 block of Market Street in West Philadelphia. It was on the same block as the legendary WFIL television studio that hosted Dick Clark’s iconic American Bandstand TV program.

The Arrows got off to a very poor start, coming in last place in both of their first two seasons, and going through two head coaches in the process. The club’s fortunes changed dramatically in their third year with the appointment of Herb Gardiner as head coach. Gardiner, a World War I veteran and the winner of the 1926-27 Hart Trophy (NHL MVP), completely turned the team around and would coach the Arrows for the remainder of the club’s existence. They finished in second place during the 1929-30 regular season before an early playoff exit at the hands of the Boston Tigers. The team took a couple of steps back in the subsequent two seasons, just missing out on the playoffs in the 1930-31 and coming in second to last place in 1931-32.

The 1932-33 season saw the Arrows dominate behind league points leader, Center Paul Runge. They finished the regular season in first place, earning them an automatic berth in the Finals. In true Philadelphia fashion they lost the finals against the Boston Cubs. The Arrows would jump out to a two-games-to-none lead before losing the final three games of the best-of-5 series, culminating with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss at home. The following season saw the Arrows drop down to third place, losing to Boston in the first round of the playoffs. In 1934-35, their last season as the Arrows, the team slumped down to last place.

In the offseason, the team changed names to become the Philadelphia Ramblers. The name change must have helped as the Ramblers won the 1935-36 Canadian-American Hockey League championship. In 1936, the Canadian-American Hockey League merged with the International Hockey League to form the International-American Hockey League. This would later be shortened to the American Hockey League. The Ramblers would make the finals of this new league two out of the next three years, losing on both occasions. After three seasons out of the playoff picture, the Ramblers (Now with a new moniker: the Philadelphia Rockets) ceased operations for good in 1942.

Philadelphia Arena fell into disuse after the construction of the Spectrum in 1967, and was renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. in 1977. On August 24th, 1983, the arena was burned down by arsonists. Today the location where the arena stood is occupied by an apartment complex.

Fun Facts about the Philadelphia Arrows:

  • The Arrows had three Hockey Hall of Fame members involved with the club. They were Herb Gardiner (enshrined in 1958), Marty “Goal-a-game” Barry (enshrined in 1965), and Art Coulter. (enshrined in 1974)
  • When the Philadelphia Flyers were created in 1967, Ed Snider sought out Arrows coach Herb Gardiner (still living in Philadelphia) and awarded him the honor of being the Flyers first season ticket holder. Gardiner attended Flyers games until his death in 1972.
  • Tommy Anderson, who played for the Arrows from 1930-1934 won the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP award) in 1942 with the Brooklyn Americans. He became the last player from a non Original Six team to win the award until Flyers great Bobby Clark won in 1973.
  • In 1930, the NHL moved its Pittsburgh Pirates franchise to Philadelphia and rebranded them as the Philadelphia Quakers. The team was so bad that they were out-attended by the Arrows. The Quakers folded after just one season.

Shibe Vintage Sports features this vintage Philadelphia Arrows shirt now available.