When it wasn’t joining in Sony Corp.’s buyout of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. or talking to Time Warner Cable about carving up Adelphia Communications Corp., Comcast Corp. has been busy assembling a nationwide string of regional sports networks.
From modest beginnings — regional-sports networks in the Philadelphia and Washington/Baltimore areas and a small Southeastern college-sports channel — Comcast has quietly become a sports-TV powerhouse.
“They’re a force to be reckoned with, not only as a content aggregator, but as a distributor as well,” Kagan Research sports analyst John Mansell said. “Anybody else who wants to start a regional sports network will have to deal with Comcast somewhere down the line.”
As Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia celebrated its seventh anniversary on Oct. 1, the MSO flicked the switch on a new regional in Chicago featuring the games and ownership interests of four of the market’s major pro-sports teams.
The night before, Comcast announced plans for a fourth full-fledged regional sports network in Central California, centered around the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings.
Meanwhile, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic is more than an interested onlooker in Major League Baseball’s relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C., another Comcast market. That move is expected to yield a RSN which covers that club and the Baltimore Orioles, with which Comcast has a contract through the 2006 season.
Over the last two months, Comcast also has debuted team-oriented regional networks for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves — complementing the channel dedicated to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons that it introduced last year.
Given these aggressive sports network moves — as well as its desire to acquire both pro and college sports content for distribution via HDTV and video-on-demand applications — industry observers say Comcast has become a much heavier hitter in the cable sports arena.
“Comcast is being very aggressive and flexible,” Lee Berke, a consultant who works with teams and regional sports networks, said. “Market-by-market, everybody needs to be creative.”
Berke said Comcast “realizes that one size doesn’t fit all. The Cowboys network is a partnership; it’s a venture with BravesVision; and Comcast has an ownership-management deal with the regional in Chicago.”
The new California channel is to be called Comcast SportsNet West, launching next month. Along with Kings games, it will air a host of local college-sports programming, according to Susan Gonzales, spokeswoman for Comcast’s Central California region.
Comcast recently cut a 10-year deal to air 58 preseason and regular-season Kings games annually, including 54 that were not available on TV anywhere. The network will be carried on Comcast’s expanded-basic tier, with HDTV cablecasts available via Comcast on Demand.
Comcast SportsNet West will launch to 700,000 subscribers in the Sacramento system and be offered to other MSOs in the area, as well as to systems in the San Francisco/Oakland area reaching nearly 2 million subscribers.
The network, yet to conclude any deals, would effectively infringe upon Fox Sports Net Bay Area’s territory, although Gonzales said the Comcast channel would black out Kings games in areas where Bay Area’s Golden State Warriors games are offered.
“They are delivering a message” to Fox and Rainbow Sports, which own the Bay Area RSNs, Mansell said. “They are the dominant operator in San Francisco as well, so when any of those teams come up for renewal, [Comcast] is very likely going to bid.”
In Chicago, Comcast has a partnership with the owners of the major pro sports teams in the area: Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the Chicago Bulls basketball and Chicago White Sox baseball teams; the Wirtz family, which has ties to the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks; and Tribune Co., which controls baseball’s Chicago Cubs.
Along with live games from all of those clubs, the Chicago channel will offer local sports news or talk shows each day at 5:30, 6:30, 10 p.m. and midnight, as well as pre- and post-game team telecasts. It will also offer pre-game and post-game shows for all pro team telecasts, and post-game and weekly coach’s shows for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League.
The launch was supposed to coincide with the opening of the NHL season. With the league shut down due to a lockout, president Jim Corno said classic Blackhawks games will air instead.
Although no announcement had been made at press time, one of the proposals MLB reportedly is making to pacify the Orioles — eyeing a rival for regional baseball fans for the first time since the Washington Senators left for Arlington, Texas, 33 years ago — calls for establishing a regional sports network that would feature both Orioles contests and those of the relocated franchise.
Published reports indicated that the Orioles and the new Washington team would each have ownership stakes in the regional sports network.
Comcast Sports Net Mid-Atlantic is in the third of a five-year Orioles deal, which, this season, encompassed 87 regular-season and three exhibition games.
MUM ON D.C. CLUB
Thus far, Comcast has kept its cap in the dugout about MLB’s relocation play.
“While we pride ourselves on providing quality sports programming for our customers, the decision to bring the team here has just been finalized and we have not yet held any discussions regarding carriage of the new team’s games,” Comcast SportsNet CEO Jack Williams said in a statement.
Sources familiar with the MSO, though, said the regional would certainly be interested in adding the Washington baseball team’s games.
“Just look at what’s happening in Chicago: the network will air both White Sox and Cubs games,” said one.
Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp., a Chicago-based consultancy, said, “anyone who thinks what’s happening in Washington isn’t a coincidence is fooling themselves. Jerry Reinsdorf worked out something similar with the regional network in Chicago. Comcast is the owner there, too. And Jerry chaired MLB’s relocation committee to Washington.”
Ganis believes more deals like this will follow. “The team gets the cable company to put up the cash, manage the network, sell the advertising and get the distribution clearance,” he said.
“The teams give up some of the [revenue stream] upside, but they reduce the downside risks. This is a structure we’re going to see elsewhere.”
Veteran sports marketer Mike Trager, a former NBC Sports and Clear Channel Television boss, isn’t so sure.
“Maybe the Washington team would be better off selling its [TV] rights to secure a level of income. Not all of these team-driven regional sports networks work,” he said, pointing to the Minnesota Twins’ strikeout in launching Twin Cities regional Victory Sports.
VOD PACKAGE TOO
Comcast will not limit its sports-programming repertoire to linear channels.
In an effort to boost the appeal of its on-demand service, the MSO last month launched a highlights-driven, college football VOD package.
Comcast is offering replays and highlights of games from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference — most produced by the Comcast Sports Southeast college-based regional sports network. Combined, the package offers about 20 to 30 hours of programming a week.
Comcast executives said it was too early to give specific usage numbers, but vice president of new video products Page Thompson said he’s received positive feedback about the package. The college-football package complements Comcast’s on-demand NFL highlights package offered in accordance with its carriage agreement for NFL Network.
Comcast officials said that during the week of Sept. 12, approximately 600,000 of the MSO’s VOD-enabled households, which sources peg at 4 million subscribers, accessed portions of the package, which offers highlights of each NFL game played the previous Sunday.