It's hard to ascertain who was more ecstatic about the Portland Trail Blazers winning the first pick in the upcoming National Basketball Association draft: the club's coach, Nate McMillan, or Comcast SportsNet president Jon Litner.
Portland's unlikely lottery draft win — which figures to net the struggling team blue-chip Ohio State center Greg Oden — provided a big shot of early momentum last week for Comcast's new, Trail Blazers-based Comcast SportsNet Northwest regional sports network. The service, set to tip off this fall, is the latest Comcast-owned and operated regional sports network to be announced. But it most likely won't be the last. Litner said Comcast will continue to look for opportunities to expand its growing regional sports business portfolio.
Comcast SportsNet Northwest will carry at least 55 regular-season Blazers games, with NBC's Portland affiliate, KGW-TV, picking up the remaining 27 contests. The network will also present 28 of its 36 televised home games in the high-definition format.
Litner also said the network will carry a variety of other local sports events, but would not reveal specifics. The network will be a viable and valuable service to local operators, even with only one pro-sports team, he added.
“We're doing the same thing in Sacramento [with the NBA's Sacramento Kings] and we're doing it in New York [with Major League Baseball's New York Mets],” he said. “What's really important is that there's tremendous passion for sports, not only in Portland, but throughout the Northwest. We hope to use the Trail Blazers to trail-blaze through that community.”
Litner would not reveal terms of the deal, or how much the network will cost operators, but published reports place the monthly fee at $2 per subscriber. “We're confident in the value of our offering and we think it will be a great service,” he said.
Comcast executive vice president of sports programming and Golf Channel CEO Dave Manougian will oversee the launch of Comcast SportsNet Northwest.
Comcast replaces FSN Northwest, which ended its five-year rights deal with the Blazers at the end of the recently-completed season, amidst falling ratings. The network saw its Blazers ratings drop from a 3.4 household average in the market during the 2002-03 campaign to a 1.5 rating in 2006-07, when it telecast 35 live games.
Fox Sports Net spokesman Chris Bellitti said the network was unwilling to pay a substantial increase to retain the pro hoops team's rights: “We walked away from the Trail Blazers because it was a bad deal — even with the No. 1 pick — and we were unwilling to force our distributors and consumers to pay for it.”
Liberty Media will own FSN Northwest as part of an asset swap with News Corp. for control of direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV. The transaction is expected to be finalized later this year.
The Blazers join Comcast-owned-or-operated regional sports networks in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington/Baltimore, Sacramento, New York and most recently Boston and San Francisco/Oakland. In addition, Comcast is part owner in The Mtn. — MountainWest Sports Network.
Litner said Comcast will continue to seek opportunities to launch other regional sports networks, including markets where Comcast is not the dominant operator, although he did not specify targets.
“We'll always be opportunistic and be aggressive where it makes sense,” he said. “If there are other markets where we have the opportunity to launch a regional sports network we'll look long and hard at it.”