Baseball Looks to a Network All Its Own of Its Own

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Major League Baseball may soon be pitching operators about its own 24-hour channel.

MLB is currently polling league executives and team owners about the prospect of launching a digital service sometime in 2005 that would mostly offer non-live game programming, including vintage contests and other baseball-related content, according to league executive vice president of business Tim Brosnan.

"It's an interesting an important project that exists on the Major League Baseball side, and there are owners who have expressed that sentiment and wish to be very aggressive in pursuing the opportunity," Brosnan said.

Baseball is the only major pro sports league that has not launched a full-time network: both the NBA and the NFL have fledgling services, and last week the National Hockey League said it may roll its Canada-based NHL Network into the U.S. sometime next year.

The NHL Network currently offers league news, highlights, player profiles, training tips and the latest equipment advances, as well as amateur hockey coverage.

"Our intent is to bring it down to the U.S. as soon as possible as we continue to look at our overall television strategy," said league executive vice president and COO Jon Litner. "It's a priority for us, and it's an opportunity to take what's already working in Canada and migrate it down to the U.S."

Neither NBA TV nor the NFL Network has been very successful in gaining significant distribution as operators remain wary of incurring more sports network rights costs.

NBA TV has gained limited digital-tier carriage from Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems Corp. and Cox Communications Inc., while NFL Network only has distribution through direct broadcast satellite provider DirecTV Inc.

Yet Brosnan said the current strife between operators and sports networks has not dulled baseball's enthusiasm over its service.

Brosnan said the league is not planning to pull live games from its national network distributors — ESPN, Fox Sports and Turner Sports — and would opt instead to tap into the league's programming vault, which features thousands of hours of vintage games and other shoulder programming.

But with its cable deal with ESPN ending in 2005 and its Fox broadcast-TV agreement concluding the following year, the league could use the network as a bargaining chip to extract better terms for package renewals.

Live games would certainly enhance the value and appeal of the network to baseball fans. NBA TV is offering 96 live games during the 2003-04 season, while the NFL Network isn't offering any games to date, although it could choose to pull games out of its television agreements with ABC/ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS when those deals expire after the 2005 season.

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