Cable Operators

Hard Ball

3/24/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

Some sounds, like a line drive cracking off the bat, are welcome reminders that the national pastime is back for a new season, but cries from select networks and distributors concerning carriage of area Major League Baseball teams have also emerged as a rite of spring.

This year, the regional sports network din has been heard loudest in the New York, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles markets as leverage battles in negotiations for distribution, license fees and contract extensions, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, play out.

“There's always the back and forth between distributors and programmers, but it's not just cable and satellite anymore,” said Lee Berke, principle of sports consultancy LBH Sports Entertainment & Media. “There are teams and leagues interested in VOD, wireless and the phone companies. It's a great time to be a content provider.”

In the Big Apple, the New York Mets, in conjunction with Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., have formed their own network, SportsNet New York, which has supplanted Cablevision Systems Corp.-owned Madison Square Garden Network and FSN New York as the cable home of the Amazins.

In addition to carriage from its cable owners, the market's fourth RSN had closed deals with Mid-Hudson Cable (20,000 subscribers) MTC Cable (2,000) and Warrick Valley Telephone Co. (4,000). Then last Wednesday, it inked a pact with Verizon Communications Inc., before closing the big hole in its lineup with a Cablevision accord the following day.

Although terms of the Cablevision deal were not disclosed, sources put SNY's monthly rate card in the $1.70-$1.75 range per subscriber. Hence, SNY managed to avoid the acrimonious, finger-pointing that characterized Cablevision's negotiations with the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network in 2002, when that regional began airing New York Yankees games that previously aired on MSGN (see story page 12).

In Cleveland, Fastball Sports Productions LLC has launched SportsTime Ohio as the new cable carrier for the Indians — a strikeout for FSN Ohio. With Time Warner and a number of others in the fold, SportsTime Ohio had signed deals covering over 60% of cable subscribers in its coverage area.

In the nation's capital, more area viewers will be able to tune in the second season of the Washington Nationals, but most will likely continue to be shut out: Middle-Atlantic Sports Network and Comcast Corp. remain engaged in litigation over various issues. Meanwhile, the operator's own area regional, Comcast SportsNet, is entering its final season of covering the neighboring Baltimore Orioles.

At press time, Fox Sports West had not yet reached a long-term extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that would officially forestall owner Arthur Moreno from starting his own regional. Although the parties were said to be nearing a 10-year, $500 million pact more than a month ago, they were still negotiating as of last Thursday.

TRIBE TIES

In Ohio, Fastball, which is controlled by Indians owner Larry Dolan's family, continues to bolster the distribution lineup for Sports Time Ohio, which will televise 130 of the club's regular-season games. Last week, Fastball — coming out of the gate with about seven hours of coverage, via pre- and postgame shows, the games and encores, plus a weekly Indians wrap series — added more than 160,000 subscribers through deals with GLW Broadband, Comcast and Cox Communications Inc., joining a host of other distributors, including Time Warner Cable.

“[The Dolans] went to Time Warner first. There wouldn't have been a business here without them” said Fastball president Jim Liberatore of the operator, which is also handling the network's national, regional and local ad sales.

Liberatore said that Sports Time now has carriage deals that reach about 1.8 million of the 2.8 million cable homes in its coverage area. “We're connecting with DirecTV [Inc.] and are pretty close with Dish [Network]. I think we could be 100% penetrated by opening day. Distributors have really worked with us and came up with creative suggestions.”

Liberatore declined to discuss deal terms. But Sports Time's term sheet indicated four pricing zones with prices ranging from 94 cents per month, including two minutes of ad time per hour, to $1.83 for those closer to Cleveland.

Previously, the Indians game rights were held by FSN Ohio, which offered $35 million per year to keep the product it had been carrying since 1989. General manager Steve Liverani, while acknowledging the loss of the highly rated Indians, is viewing their absence as “an opportunity to reinvent as more of a local programmer.” The first step will be talk show Cleveland Rants, which will be simulcast, beginning April 2, on sports talk radio station WKNR and the RSN. Fans can be “first in and first out,” voicing their opinions about the Indians as the program will immediately follow the team's games.

WASHINGTON WAR

Like Sports Time Ohio, MASN has recently added some carriers — just not the big one in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. During its rookie year, MASN, which offers 150 Nationals regular-season games, had distribution via DirecTV and RCN Corp. This year, it has signed deals with Charter Communications Inc., Verizon's FiOS TV and Cox.

Network spokesman Todd Webster said the service, which critics point out only shows games, plus pre- and postgame fare, now has commitments that can place it in front of 2 million households in the mid-Atlantic region.

But the 1.1 million Comcast homes in the Washington/Baltimore area remain outside its dugout and will likely stay that way at least through June. That's when the parties will hash things out in court again. Twice a Montgomery County (Md.) circuit judge has thrown out Comcast's lawsuit against the Orioles in which the operator sought to block the team from moving its games to MASN in 2007, ruling that Comcast's matching offer clause had not been triggered.

MASN, co-owned by the MLB and the Orioles, was created as part of the deal that allowed the Montreal Expos to move to D.C. and become the Nationals. Comcast, which will show 90 Orioles games this season, said it didn't get the chance to match the offer. MASN will hold the O's TV rights, beginning next season.

MASN owner TCR Sports Broadcasting Holding LLP filed a carriage complaint with the Federal Communications Corp. last June, charging Comcast with violations of program carriage rules, while also requesting emergency relief for Comcast to carry the network.

Webster said that MASN has also struck out in its efforts to score a deal with Adelphia Communications Corp., which Comcast will gain when its acquisition with Time Warner of the bankrupt MSO is finalized. Webster said MASN has made a number of offers to Comcast to “flip the games on” and negotiate later, something the MSO has refused to do.

Mixing sports metaphors, Webster said Comcast is using the litigation as “a rope-a-dope excuse” not to engage in discussions.

“Comcast has always supported the return of baseball to Washington, D.C. But [Orioles owner] Peter Angelos is holding the Nationals TV rights hostage,” said Comcast SportsNet spokesman Chris Helein. “We're not interested in putting more money in Angelos' pockets.”

Berke said the parties will eventually come to terms. “They need each other. There are a lot of different ways to come to some kind of agreement — through distribution, an equity position or a programming deal,” he said. Next season, MASN would hold the rights to some 300 O's and Nats games, so there will be plenty of spillover contests.

TCR claims, though, that Comcast has sought equity in MASN as a condition for carriage.

ANGLING ANGELS

As for the Angels, the club was still trying to hammer out a new long-term pact that would supercede its current contract with FSN West under which the RSN airs a minimum of 50 games through the 2008 season.

FSN West reportedly made a 10-year, $340 million offer last fall to televise 100 contests per year, when owner Moreno was entertaining the idea of starting his own network in 2009. That offer, which also includes provisions for Channel 13, KCOP-TV, to televise 50 games, supposedly jumped to some $500 million in February, which on an average annualized basis would more than double the $24 million the club received from FSN West and KCAL, Channel 9 (49 games) last season. KCAL will carry Los Angeles Dodgers games this season.

An Angels spokesman said that a recent Los Angeles Times report indicating that the team was talking to Channel 56, KDOC-TV, about broadcasting most of the team's games in 2006 was “wrong. We're still in conversations with FSN West.”

A spokeswoman for FSN West said “we're working on a long-term deal. Working out all the final details can take a while.”

“Fox is going to get something done. They can't afford to lose that team in its own backyard,” said the network executive.

For their part, the Dodgers, who signed a 10-year, $320 million deal with FSN in 2004 to air 100 games per season, will lead the relaunch of FSN West 2 as FSN Prime Ticket on April 3. When the change is made at noon that day, the network will debut Dodgers Live, an enhanced pre- and postgame show, leading into the club's season opener against the Atlanta Braves.

There are changes afoot elsewhere, too. Cathy Weeden, executive vice president and general manager of Sun Sports and FSN Florida, said the latter's long-term renewal deal with the Florida Marlins has increased the telecast rights to 150 games from 95 last season. Combined with 75 Tampa Devil Rays contests, FSN Florida has scheduling conflicts that will result in 45 Marlins games being aired live on sister service Sun.

Weeden said Sun subscribers will receive the feed for the overflow Marlins games — as well as 75 of that team's contests and 30 Devil Rays tilts in HDTV, the networks' first strides with the sport in that format — if distributors agree to pay a surcharge, which she would not disclose.

By press time, Weeden said that the “majority of the big guys,” Comcast, Cox, Adelphia and Verizon (for FiOS TV), had agreed to the deal.

When members of the Red Sox Nation want to tune in a game in New England this season, they can set their dials on New England Sports Network. For the first time, all Bosox area games will be on cable, as the regional sports network, will televise 149 games this year (13 others will air nationally). That's up from 106 in 2005, when the team's contests also aired on WSBK, UPN38. Moreover, NESN said it will become the first RSN to offer all of a team's games in HD.

FSN, meanwhile, reports that its 15 owned-and-operated RSNs will televise 310 baseball games in HD, more than any other local provider.

September