Baseball Net Eyes More Live Games

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Major League Baseball’s startup network will make a pitch for more live games when the league’s cable deals expire in 2013, but the World Series will remain on free TV for the foreseeable future, MLB vice president of business Tim Brosnan said last week.

Brosnan, who spoke Wednesday morning during the Sports Business Journal FSA Sports Media & Technology Conference, said the MLB Network will launch Jan. 1 with 50 million subscribers and will feature 26 live games during the 2008 season — most likely airing on Thursdays or Saturdays.

For the network’s inaugural night, it will feature film of Don Larsen’s perfect game pitched during the 1956 New York Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers World Series.

MLB Network president Tony Petitti said the network will focus on taped and studio material for the first couple of months before ramping up spring-training coverage for all 30 teams and live coverage of several World Baseball Classic games in March.

Petitti said the network will offer some 1,400 hours of live programming its first year.

Brosnan said MLB Network is positioning itself to be an active bidder for a much larger live game package once current deals with ESPN, TBS and Fox expire in 2013. “The goal is to be in a position for a new package of games in five years,” he said.

Brosnan said the current deal with TBS — for all divisional playoff games and one of the two league Championship Series — has generated positive promotion for the sport but added: “What we need to work on is to teach the viewers that [MLB playoff games] are on Turner, and where Turner is.”

Brosnan also said the World Series won’t be on cable anytime soon.

Panelists at the conference said TV sports will struggle along with key ad categories like the auto and financial industries. But the popularity of the product helps.

“Sports will do better than the rest of the world and the stronger networks will survive,” YES Network CEO Tracy Dolgin said. “The more passion people have for a property, the better it will do.”

He said the regional sports networks with strong franchises — including YES with the New York Yankees and Comcast Bay Area with the San Francisco Giants — are logically in better position than the others.

But new media ventures could take a hit as networks scale back investments in interactive and other new applications until the economy revives, Dolgin said.

The exception to a new-media pullback would be streaming live games on the Internet. The National Basketball Association, MLB and National Hockey League all are considering live game streaming in local markets.

Dolgin put in a plug for regional networks as best positioned to implant local pro sports games on the Web.

“The control needs to be in the hands of the TV rights holders because if you break the current [operator-network] distribution model you can never put it back right.”

Comcast SportsNet president Jon Litner, whose MSO-owned unit oversees 11 regional channels, cautioned leagues and networks to go slowly into live streaming.

“No one is in the street burning rubber because they can’t see the game on their computer,” he said.

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