Blazers, AT&T Battle Over Rights Deal

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Though the National Basketball Association's Portland Trail Blazers may not be making a lot of noise on the court, the club is waging a very vocal off-the-floor public relations battle against AT&T Broadband's Portland system.

At issue is AT&T's refusal to pay roughly 50 cents per subscriber to distribute 25 Trail Blazers games — as well as local high school and college games — on the Blazers-owned Action Sports Cable Network. With the season already two weeks old, both sides are playing the blame game in an effort to court local public opinion.

The Trail Blazers, owned by Charter Communications Inc. chairman Paul Allen, created the high-definition cable sports channel earlier this year to distribute Blazers games. For years, the telecasts had been offered on a pay-per-view basis.

Last year, the team distributed 25 games on an AT&T local-access channel.

ASCN has about 330,000 subscribers, but has yet to penetrate the AT&T-controlled metropolitan Portland DMA. ASCN executive vice president Harry Hutt said he thought the network had reached an agreement in principle on Oct. 15 with system executives to distribute the network on AT&T's expanded-basic tier.

But a week later, Hutt said AT&T's corporate programming division eschewed the agreement. "We had negotiated a deal in principle over the phone," Hutt said. "If we were in person, we would have shaken hands.

"Based on the agreement reached, it was a win-win for everybody," he added. "But AT&T's corporate programming people threw the deal out and came back with a new offer that was totally untenable."

Hutt even said AT&T conducted a test run of the network on the weekend of Oct. 27, presumably in preparation for a launch.

But AT&T spokeswoman Lindy Bartell said the MSO never had a signed agreement with ASCN. AT&T was never enamored with the deal, which calls for license fees that are "double the industry standard for costs-per-game," she said, although she would not reveal specific deal terms.

"We're looking for something that's more in line with the contractual agreements that we have with other [sports] networks," Bartell said.

But Hutt countered that AT&T's cost evaluations don't account for local Oregon high school and college sports programming, as well as live college sports events provided by ESPN Regional Television. Overall, ASCN will offer more than 600 live sports events within a year.

The network also features ESPN News as its backdrop service, although AT&T already offers the network on a 24-hour basis.

"They only valued the Blazers games, but it's not a fair evaluation of a 24-hour sports channel," Hutt said.

In an effort to win over the public, both sides have rolled out public-relations spots touting their respective positions.

AT&T stepped up the volume by running an ad during TBS Superstation's Oct. 30 Trail Blazers-Los Angeles Lakers telecast. The spot claimed that ASCN's deal was unfair and would boost cable rates.

ASCN responded during its Oct. 31 Trail Blazers-Golden State Warriors telecast by essentially telling viewers that AT&T reneged on the deal.

Bartell admitted that the system has received several calls from subscribers asking for the games, but noted that there have been calls from other subscribers thanking the MSO for not raising subscriber fees for additional sports product.