Cable Operators

CRACKDOWN

11/28/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Comcast Corp.'s aggressive push into the regional sports arena apparently will have to continue without the consent of the National Football League in the short-term. The pro football league last week imposed a “moratorium” on all team-oriented local sports networks in an effort to protect its national TV partners and its startup NFL Network.

The NFL has sacked its teams from following the lead of the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys in partnering with Comcast to create networks dedicated to a single team. But other pro sports leagues have given the green light to such ventures, despite plans for their own league-owned national cable networks.

The NFL has alerted its 32 team owners that it wants to put the brakes on new team-based networks, such as those launched by Comcast over the last two years for the Cowboys and Falcons.

While not permanently discouraging the eventual development of such networks, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league wants to examine the issue more closely to see how it fits into the bigger television picture with regard to broadcast, cable, video-on-demand and broadband deals.

“It's more or less a moratorium to take a broader and more strategic look at that area, rather than have teams engaging in short-term deals,” McCarthy said.

“We told the teams to take a more strategic approach and to develop a plan that would benefit all teams, rather than a few teams initially.”

Unlike the other major pro leagues, regional cable sports networks do not televise regular-season NFL games. But through Comcast's CowboysVision and FalconsVision channels, the MSO offers an array of ancillary programming, including coaches shows, player interviews, pregame and post-game analysis and cheerleader profiles, to help promote the teams and give fans greater access.

BUCS, 49ERS DERAILED

The moratorium puts a halt to proposed channels to be built around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the San Francisco 49ers, according to an article in trade publication Sports Business Journal, which first reported the NFL crackdown.

Comcast executives would not comment on the ramifications of the league's move, except to say, “We're always talking to the NFL and others about opportunities.”

The MSO also would not confirm whether it was negotiating with other teams before the league issued its regional network moratorium.

Dedicated team networks have also been on the radar screen of Time Warner Cable executive vice president of programming Fred Dressler, to some extent. Asked earlier this month during a panel discussion about the prospects of launching channels in markets where Time Warner has a major cable presence — such as networks dedicated to the NFL's Houston Texans, New York Giants or New York Jets — Dressler said his company would take a wait-and-see approach.

“I don't know the business or revenue models,” Dressler said at the Sports Media & Technology 2004 Conference in New York. “I'm happy to copy it if it works.”

As the NFL forces its teams to temporarily punt on the idea of local team-oriented services, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are not standing in the way of their respective franchises' network endeavors.

MLB CHANNELS OK

Due to the vast amount of potential local content derived from regular-season baseball coverage, MLB executive vice president of business Tim Brosnan said the league has no problem with local startups such as Comcast's Atlanta-based BravesVision or the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Inc. partnership to develop a New York Mets channel in 2006.

“An RSN is an entirely different consideration for baseball team than it is for a football team, and that has everything to do with the volume of local product [for baseball] and the scarcity of local product [for football],” Brosnan said. “Our clubs derive a significant amount of income from local rights deals, so in some instances, the RSN is a better economic model for the club.”

As a result, Comcast said it will continue BravesVision during the off-season. It launched the service last summer.

Comcast Southern division senior vice president Bill Connors said BravesVision will most likely be offered on a part-time basis during the next three months, but he said Comcast and the team are discussing several programming options.

They include coverage of off-season player workouts and potentially extensive spring-training action.

“It was uncharted waters for both us and the Braves. But we are both now champing at the bit to explore that even more in 2005,” he said.

For its part, MLB is contemplating the launch of its own national network this fall. Initially, the service would not offer live games, but rather present highlights, vintage contests and player profiles, among other fare.

Down the road, the service could add current contests: MLB's contracts with ESPN and Fox expire after the 2005 and 2006 seasons, respectively.

NBA'S STERN VIEWS

As for the NBA, league commissioner David Stern recently told Multichannel News he's bullish on team-oriented regional startups as a vehicle for promoting teams and games.

Comcast teamed with the Sacramento Kings to launch Comcast SportsNet West last month, while Cox Communications Inc. in 2003 partnered with the New Orleans Hornets to create Cox Sports Television, an RSN in Louisiana.

Another startup network, proposed by the Memphis Grizzlies, was dissolved after the NBA team encountered difficulty gaining distribution. It then signed a long-term carriage deal with FSN South and FSN Southwest.

“Nothing could be better, from an NBA perspective, than the launch of new regional-sports networks — it means better coverage for our teams, increased revenues, more competition for programming, and it drives everything in the right direction,” Stern said.

Along with reining in rogue network launches, McCarthy did not deny that the NFL mandate was designed to protect the league's fledgling NFL Network.

The 20 million-household service is still seeking carriage deals with several MSOs and with direct-broadcast satellite company EchoStar Communications Corp.

“It's NFL Network, but it's also to benefit all teams, rather than those teams who sign quick deals right now.”

TWO NETS KEEPING ON

A Comcast spokesman said he was not aware of any NFL mandate to make programming cutbacks or changes to CowboysVision, which was launched this past September to about 200,000 Dallas-area subscribers on Comcast's digital plus and on a sports tier.

As for FalconsVision, Connors said the network is “grandfathered” from the moratorium and is continuing to bolster its content.

The MSO was set to meet with the Falcons last Wednesday to develop even more programming for the network, which currently offers pre- and post-game shows, coaches' platforms, player interviews and other Falcons-related fare, he noted.

Initially launched as a digital network to about 450,000 subscribers, Connors said Comcast two weeks ago began offering the network to its full 700,000 subscriber basic-cable base in the Atlanta DMA on the weekends.

“In an NFL town with the Falcons' talent and their march toward the playoffs, we are very fortunate to deal with an NFL team that is very fan friendly and very marketing-savvy,” Connors said.

“This is one of those rare times where going first clearly did have its benefits.”

March