Comcast may have ushered in a brave new world in the realm of regional sports networks.
Last week, Comcast Corp. teamed with Atlanta Braves owner Turner Broadcasting System Inc. to launch a dedicated network to the Major League Baseball team in its Southern division. BravesVision features lives games in HDTV along with classic contests and other ancillary fare.
Securing live HD rights might be Comcast’s ticket to offering live games on other future team-oriented networks in markets where an existing regional sports network holds local-cable rights.
Currently, relatively few homes are able to receive the enhanced signals, but the inclusion of live HD games could bolster the value and appeal of any future Comcast-dedicated team channel, or serve as a template for other operators looking to associate themselves with an area team.
Comcast, which has also launched 24/7 channels with the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys, albeit without any live action, would first have to work out a deal with Fox Sports Net, which has secured both the linear cable and HD rights to most of the pro sports teams for its owned and affiliated regional sports networks.
Thus far, Fox Sports — through parent News Corp. — has only reached an MSO-wide HD distribution deal with Time Warner Inc. Representatives from Comcast and Fox Sports could not be reached for comment at press time.
Although the 24/7 BravesVision launched last week, Comcast’s Southern division vice president of communications and community relations Reg Griffin said the MSO has been airing Braves home games in HD since the early summer — part of a partnership with Turner, which owns the team and distributes Braves games on TBS and Turner South.
The HD signal airs simultaneously with live game coverage on the two networks.
“We’ll offer pregame shots from the Braves games, then once the game starts, only viewers that are high-definition customers will be able to see the game on the channel,” said Comcast’s Southern division vice president of communications and community relations Reg Griffin. “If you’re a digital customer, you can go to either Turner South or TBS.”
While BravesVision is only offering home games from Turner Field this year, it could become home to a broader slate next year: TBS and Turner South will have distributed about 125 games combined by the end of the 2004 season.
“We’ll learn a lot before the end of the season [with the game telecasts],” Braves vice president of sales and marketing for the Derek Schiller. “We’ll learn a lot in the off-season. Then, we’ll reevaluate our situation next year.”
Along with the HD games, the network is offering classic Braves games. Programming plans are still being mapped out, but Schiller said profiles of players and management on and off the field are likely. The channel currently resides on Comcast’s Atlanta system on channel 755, in recognition of former Braves great Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. About half of Comcast’s 600,000 subscribers in the Atlanta area can access the channel.
TARGET: AVID FANS
“Our goal is to reach out to avid fans located in Atlanta and the southeast territory,” Schiller said, noting that HD Braves games could also appear throughout Turner South’s service area: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and regions of North Carolina.
Griffin said the channel is exclusive to Comcast, but would not rule out the potential of offering the channel to other area MSOs. “It’s something that we should look at going forward,” he said. “Based on fan reaction and what kind of feedback we get from other Comcast systems, we may also look to offer it outside of the region.”
Griffin cited the success of the system’s dedicated channel for the Falcons football team. “In this competitive age that we’re in, for a cable operator to align itself with a popular sports team is a positive thing to do,” he said.
Mike Reynolds contributed to this article.