The story of professional sports is, among other things, the story of cheap bastard owners doing cheap bastard things. Charlie Comiskey charged his White Sox players to launder their uniforms. Jeffrey Loria coldly auctioned off two World Series champions, sold the Marlins for more than a billion dollars, and probably still steals from the collection basket at church. Mike Brown’s Bengals have been a model of parsimony and ineptitude for decades and his stadium is currently busting an Ohio county’s budget. Donald Sterling you know about.
But for pure, spiteful miserliness, no owner can hold a candle to Chicago liquor magnate Bill Wirtz, who punished Chicago Blackhawks fans in ways great and small, for decades. Until his death in 2007, Wirtz refused to allow any Blackhawks home games to be broadcast on TV; his justification was that doing so would hurt attendance and (seriously) that it would not be fair to season ticket holders, presumably because buying a season ticket carries the expectation that one’s access to the game is exclusive. What seems inexplicable at first and also second glance may in fact offer a window onto Wirtz’s worldview—whatever else he was, he was also the sort of man who would fly into a rage upon learning that, having paid good money for his ticket, he would not be the only person able to see the game.
Clearly this is not a man who would condone a bunch of goddamn freeloaders seeing their favorite team without paying him first.
The sheer contempt of Wirtz’s television blackout policy made it the cornerstone of Chicago fans’ hatred of the owner for many years. The No Home Games policy came up every time Wirtz ran a popular player out of town because he didn’t want to pay up, which was often. But when the team accidentally became a contender in 1991-92 through good drafting and a lucky trade, demand for playoff home game broadcasts reached a new crescendo. After years of ineptitude stretching back to the Nixon era, a Hawks team led by young Eddie Belfour and Jeremy Roenick and supplemented by Chris Chelios—acquired in a straight swap when Wirtz tired of paying Denis Savard’s salary—surged into the playoffs. They absolutely looked like the real deal, provided you could find some way to see them.
Every home game was sold out wall-to-wall, including a standing room section in the unstable third balcony at Chicago Stadium. (This was where I learned what weed smells like and, honest to god, once saw an empty whiskey bottle smashed over the head of a St. Louis Blues fan.) Ticket sales literally could not be increased any further, so what could it hurt to broadcast the home games?
If you are a human being who has been raised in any environment more loving than a B.F. Skinner experiment, this moment is where you relent and change the policy. But Bill Wirtz was not about taking the easy or kind way out, so this was where he opted instead to set up his own pay-per-view network and charge fans $16.95 per game. He called it HawkVision. It sucked.
SportsVision, the brainchild of Bulls partner Eddie Einhorn, was a staple of cable sports television in the Midwest beginning in 1982. Eventually it morphed into SportsChannel, then Fox SportsNet Chicago, then Comcast SportsNet Chicago, then NBC Sports Chicago. The current incarnation is, I don’t know, Earthlink HockeyNet or something. It’s not important, really. What’s more important is that the network aired the Bulls and White Sox through seasons in which those teams were actually worth watching, and what’s most important is that it was also where fans could find Blackhawks road games.
Having that close relationship with the local cable sports channel offered Wirtz the infrastructure to set up a parallel pay-per-view scheme alongside SportsChannel. Any cable subscriber who could see SportsChannel could, for a price, also get HawkVision. Wirtz was not the first owner to try this gambit, to be fair—Minnesota North Stars owner Norm Green tried it in 1991 and was called “Norm Greed” by local press—but he was the first to try to charge fans for home games that were not locally blacked out. Wirtz wanted to charge fans to see sold-out games on TV. It makes sense, if you’re a dick.
HawkVision was pricey. During the Stanley Cup fever days of the 1992 playoff run prices topped $15 per game (approximately the cost of a new Saturn at the time). “We’re not trying to force anyone to buy it,” Wirtz told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “We’re just offering the games. It’s additional service.”
You can’t roll out an expensive new service without some dynamite ads, and boy howdy did HawkVision have a marketing campaign for the ages. The slogan “Rock Your House!”—the joke being that, for once and for a price, you could now watch home games in your own house, like a normal fan of a normal team—formed the foundation. The rest was a fever dream of early 1990s visual clichés, squalling dorky electric guitar, and video toaster FX that have dated more poorly than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Adding to the VHS snuff film vibes was the fact that, for some reason, the team’s star players—Roenick, Belfour, and Chelios—simply could not turn toward a camera and say “Rock Your House!” with normal diction. Belfour and Chelios in particular sounded like native speakers of Esperanto reading the phrase phonetically, at gunpoint.
Having been denied the chance to see the Blackhawks compete for something other than the eighth seed for decades, my father bit and our household jumped on the bandwagon with what the team claimed were 20,000 other HawkVision subscribers during the 1992 playoff run. In return for an investment of about $50, we received: a bog-standard TV broadcast of a hockey game. The combination of over-promising, under-delivering, and over-charging was classic Wirtz.
Never one to walk away from a terrible idea, Wirtz kept HawkVision going beyond the 1992 Stanley Cup playoff run, offering to sell access to regular season home games for the next two seasons at the unbelievable in hindsight price of $29.99 per month; that’s an inflation-adjusted $53 in 2017 dollars. Wirtz must have worn custom made pants to contain the balls big enough to ask fans to pay that much every month to see a handful of regular season home hockey games. Sales figures were not announced but the Chicago Tribune reported that they “dropped dramatically” after the initial playoff run.
When the league returned from the 1994 lockout to play a truncated season, HawkVision was quietly euthanized. It lives on in the hearts of Chicagoans who, despite having three recent Stanley Cups to enjoy today, fondly remember the team that could have been.
The Blackhawks of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were tragic, and not just because they were so hard to see. They had championship-grade talent throughout the roster, with the Belfour-Chelios-Roenick nucleus bolstered by supporting All-Stars like Steve Larmer, Steve Smith, Gary Suter, Joe Murphy, and Brent Sutter. They just happened to play at the same time as some of the greatest NHL teams in history. The Blackhawks, during their brief zenith, were very good; some other team was always better. After Gretzky’s Oilers dominated the 1980s, the Jagr-Lemieux-Francis Penguins and then the early years of the Red Wings dynasty came along to block Chicago’s path.
Wirtz famously refused to spend the money to contend. His own front office told reporters that he said, “Don’t be thinking about a Stanley Cup. They’re too expensive.” He eventually traded the core players in those Blackhawks teams after a consecutive series of extremely predictable salary disputes—Belfour was sent out of town for Ulf Dahlen and Chris Terreri, Roenick for potato-headed Russian sleepwalker Alexei Zhamnov, and Chris Chelios for a pony keg of Grain Belt.
Other reports claim the Blackhawks actually received some guy named Anders Eriksson. He lasted two seasons. It worked out about the same.
When Wirtz died in 2007, fans were too gleeful to be reverent. Franchise icons like Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull, and announcer Pat Foley reemerged after having severed all ties with the team as long as Wirtz was alive. Fans actually booed the team’s very brief attempt to “honor” him at after his death.
Harsh? Even for Chicago sports, yes, booing a dead guy is harsh. But Bill Wirtz earned it. He treated the fan base with naked and utter contempt of a kind not seen since the miserly old first generation of pro sports owners. He ripped them off everywhere he could think to do it, and then invented new ways as necessary.
Happily, son and current owner Rocky Wirtz seems to have agreed with many Chicagoans on his father. His first act upon inheriting ownership was to change the loathsome TV policy. Then he overpaid some veteran free agents to reassert an interest in winning. Most important, he financed the front office that drafted Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Kane over a two-year span. The rest is history.
So is HawkVision. But anything so absurd deserves to be remembered. It was Peak Wirtz, and both more flamboyantly Nineties than a teal and purple Starter jacket and somehow timeless. It’s the naked crudity of Wirtz’s gambit that dates it; in the broader sense, though, the hustle has never stopped.