ESPN Goes Deep, Connecting on $5.6 Billion, MLB Renewal


During a Tuesday conference call announcing its renewal pact with ESPN, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig cited the game's across-the-board revenue strength and the deal as "further proof that we are truly living in a golden age of the sport."

Some may use other words to describe the state of the national pastime under Selig's watch, but green is certainly an appropriate descriptor.

The worldwide leader on Aug. 28 inked the largest deal in MLB history, signing an eight-year, $5.6 billion pact that doubles its annual outlay and keeps ESPN's myriad platforms in the game through the 2021 season with an expanded regular-season roster, a wildcard playoff contest, expanded highlight capabilities and "TV Everywhere" rights for its WatchESPN platform.

ESPN's Baseball Tonight

The renewal, which takes effect with the 2014 campaign, also sets the stage for what figures to be lucrative new agreements with incumbents Fox and Turner Sports, and perhaps a carve-out package for NBC Sports. Selig and his executive team also has to set aside compelling content for MLB Network to improve carriage and value of that asset.

The contracts for Fox -- $257 million annually for an exclusive regular season game of the week on Saturdays, All-Star Game, one League Championship Series and World Series -- and Turner's TBS -- $149 million annually for a weekly non-exclusive Sunday afternoon, regular-season contest, Division Series playoffs and the alternating LCS with Fox -- also expire at the close of the 2013 campaign.

"There are other available [packages] and we are in the process of working on them, and hopefully in the reasonably near future we will have announcements to make on them," Selig said on the call with reporters. "This is just the most dramatic way for us to say not only is this the golden era, but look at what other people think. In this and in deals to come, you are going to see further dramatic indications of that."

Selig said there wouldn't necessarily be major changes to the extant national packages, but there could be "variables, minor changes," as was the case with the ESPN deal.

Selig would not specify the value of the ESPN pact, other than to say: "We got over a 100% increase."Sports Business Journal, which was the first to report on the deal, pegged its value at more than $700 million annually. ESPN currently pays MLB nearly $306 million per year for domestic TV rights and additional $50 million for digital, international and radio rights. ESPN was able to secure all of those rights under the new agreement.

For its money, ESPN retains its exclusive Sunday Night Baseball contest, and will be able to increase the maximum number of team appearances in that window to six from five. It has also maintained its game presentations on Monday and Wednesday nights, but more significantly can increase the number of "coexists" with regional sports networks. As such, ESPN will virtually eliminate blackouts in the participating clubs' home markets and bolster its audience as a result.

The sports giant, which has been televising MLB since 1990, will get to boost its regular-season game roster from 80 to 90, through the addition of a quartet of "pennant chase" games in late September and up to six holiday games across Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day. ESPN will showcase each of the circuit's 30 teams at least once per season in a live telecast.

ESPN will also return to baseball's postseason for the first time since 2006, by picking up the rights to one of the Wild Card playoff games, alternating by league every year. Asked on the media call if it was still in the hunt for more post-season action, ESPN president John Skipper intimated the programmer is. "We're in discussions all the time," and joked that the commissioner knows his number.

Regardless of whether that comes to pass, its 2014 Wild Card presentation (Turner holds the rights to this new playoff round in 2012 and 2013) will mark the first time ESPN broadcasts an MLB playoff game in almost a decade. The network also gains rights to any regular-season tiebreaker games.

This new agreement covers TV and radio rights to MLB programming both in the U.S. and internationally, and will include a new daily studio show, expanded hours for Baseball Tonight and other shoulder baseball programming across ESPN platforms. Flagship news show SportsCenter will also be allowed to serve up highlights while games are still in process, a la MLB Network.

Skipper said the deal was critical to SportsCenter as the "increased highlights and show in-progress highlights are very important to us as we continue the vitality of that franchise."

In addition, ESPN's MLB game telecasts and other baseball fare will be available via broadband service and the WatchESPN app.

ESPN will continue to have exclusive TV rights to certain MLB All-Star Week events, notably the State Farm Home Run Derby (including the 3D presentation) and Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. In each year of the agreement, ESPN will air six one-hour specials created by MLB Productions, the Emmy Award-winning television and video production division of MLB.

Both Selig and Skipper talked up the deal's international component and its effect coverage in Latin America and for Spanish-language fans, including those Stateside via ESPN Deportes.

Despite the additional content, Skipper said: "We're not going to our distributors to ask for an increase for our content." Rather, he said the deal increases the value for affiliates who can present the content across all platforms and devices.