More sporting events will be available as pay-per-view only

Brace yourselves, sports fans, pay-per-view sports is about to become a major TV player — and that means viewers are going to have to open their wallets to see games they once watched for free.

Five years ago, only a half-million television sets had the capacity to receive an exclusive pay-per-view telecast (and get billed accordingly). Today, PPV networks reach 15.5 million homes, a number that is growing by 2 million viewers a year.

Boxing fans have grown accustomed to anteing up for marquee offerings, through either premium cable services (HBO, Showtime) or PPV showings (last year they shelled out $38.6 million for the Evander Holyfield-Buster Douglas fight). But now comes the prospect that fans of other sports may have to do likewise.

Seth Abraham, president of Time-Warner Sports, says the PPV-pro sports marriage is inevitable. ”The player salary spiral isn’t going to stop,” he says. ”Where are the teams going to get the money? There has to be an additional revenue source.”

In recent months, officials in several professional sports leagues have been looking at PPV. In February, NFL officials discussed a four-game PPV package that could appear as early as next season, while NBA executives said pro basketball might try PPV within two years. Two Major League Baseball franchises, San Diego and Minnesota, run PPV operations, and that number is expected to grow quickly.

On April 19, Time-Warner launches TVKO, a PPV boxing network, with the Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight championship bout from Atlantic City (priced at $34.95 to $40, depending on the cable operator). TVKO also will offer monthly fight cards with lesser names at $19.95. ”With a potential 15 million viewers,” says Abraham, ”the percentage we need to be successful is very small.”

Perhaps the most ambitious PPV venture is NBC Sports’ supplemental coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Through cable systems, the network will sell 540 hours of live programming from Barcelona in packages costing from $95 to $170.

How will fans used to watching the networks take to PPV? Scott Kurnit, president of Showtime Event Television’s PPV operations, says viewers should understand that new technology means new forms of television. ”Free TV is no more than a fluke, a lack of technology 40 years ago, rather than a birthright,” says Kurnit, whose company will be showing the Mike Tyson-Donovan ”Razor” Ruddock heavyweight bout March 18 ($34.95). ”They just didn’t have a viable method of scrambling signals back then, or they would have. Airwaves should be free, absolutely, but the entrepreneurial spirit of cable says, ‘Pay for it.”’