In Demand, Baseball Talk 'Innings’ Deal

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Cable operators are hoping not to strike out on a renewal of Major League Baseball’s out-of-market game package prior to opening day in April.

Video-on-demand purveyor In Demand is in talks to renew cable’s deal to distribute the “MLB Extra Innings” package, even as the league is discussing an exclusive distribution arrangement with DirecTV Inc., similar to the direct-broadcast satellite service’s deal with the National Football League for its “NFL Sunday Ticket.”

Cable operators have been offering the $170 MLB Extra Innings package — which offers as many as 900 games a year — since 2001. Initially, DBS leader DirecTV held the exclusive rights to that content.

But cable executives with knowledge of the deal say the DirecTV is making a major push to again secure exclusive rights to the package, in an effort to give it more of a sports-content advantage over cable and satellite archrival Dish Network. Neither DirecTV nor MLB officials could be reached for comment.

In Demand officials would only say that the company is in negotiations with MLB, declining to elaborate.

While the baseball pact is important to cable from a competitive standpoint, it’s not hitting home runs in the subscriber arena.

Kagan Associates estimates that Extra Innings generated 280,000 subscribers across both cable and satellite services in 2005. That pales by comparison to the 600,000 subscribers netted by the National Basketball Association’s “NBA League Pass” package and the nearly 2 million scored by Sunday Ticket during the same time period, according to Kagan.

Further, the package is dwarfed by the 1.3 million subscribers that baseball generated in 2005 for its $79.95 MLB.TV subscription broadband service, according to New York Magazine. The package includes live games, as well as extensive highlights and classic contests. Sports-programming consultant Lee Berke believes that the emergence of the broadband package could allow MLB to take DirecTV’s exclusive package without alienating cable subscribers.

“[MLB.TV] has become so widely distributed in its own right that it’s become a balancing act — the leagues are looking at various platform and the dollars they get, and trying to figure out whether exclusivity or multiple distributors makes sense,” he said. “My guess is that if DirecTV comes up with enough money, then baseball may say, 'We’re doing so well with MLB.TV maybe it’s worth it to explore being exclusive with DirecTV.’ ”

Cable does not receive any cut of the revenue from MLB.TV, but the industry benefits because its high-speed Internet access facilitates customer viewing and ultimately satisfaction with the broadband package.

Next up on cable’s out-of-market docket: the National Hockey League’s “NHL Center Ice” package, which expires after the 2006-07 season.

An NHL spokesman would only say that it has begun discussions on potential renewals with current partners.

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