New York -- Major League Baseball, upset at the prospect of
moving its Sunday night telecasts from ESPN to ESPN2 in September, may offer the games to
other networks -- including Turner Network Television, said sources close to the
But ESPN, which proposed the move after obtaining the full
Sunday night National Football League cable package, feels that ESPN2 is a viable option.
Further, it doesn't believe the league legally has any other recourse but to remain
with the network.
ESPN last January obtained Turner Network Television's
half of the NFL Sunday night package, which runs from September through late October, as
part of its eight-year, $600 million deal.
Sources said the league, which has a contract for regular
season games with ESPN through 2002, nevertheless could look to TNT to air the games
instead of the lower penetrated ESPN2 service, which is in 57.3 million homes.
Representatives from the league could not be reached for
comment, but officials from the league have stated previously that its contract with the
network calls for carriage of games on ESPN only, although there have been instances where
games have crossed over to ESPN2.
A spokesman for TNT said it was "inappropriate"
for the network to comment on the issue, saying the issue is "between ESPN and Major
TNT, however, is looking at launching a new, professional
football league which could take the place of its lost NFL package.
Chris LaPlaca, vice president of communications for ESPN,
said the network is continuing to talk to MLB about the move.
"There's been conversations going back and forth
between ESPN and Major League Baseball that will continue," LaPlaca said. "We
hope to resolve this constructively."
It's not hard to understand ESPN's desire to put
the NFL on its main channel. Last year, TNT's 9.1 NFL rating dwarfed ESPN's 1.7
baseball rating in head-to-head competition.
Plus, ESPN's baseball ratings continue to fall;
they've dropped every year since 1990. For the current seasion, the network is
averaging a 1.5 rating for baseball, down 11 percent from last year's 1.7 rating for
the same time period.
Ratings for its Sunday night package is also down; the
network is averaging a 1.9 rating compared to a 2.0 for the same period last year.
The network attributes the decline to the National
Basketball Association playoff s as well as overall programming fragmentation on
LaPlaca said much of MLB's concerns stems from a
misconception of ESPN2. Often perceived by some as a stepchild network to ESPN, La Placa
said the network has established itself as a marquee service.
The service will be in 60 million homes by September --
still short of the 73 million ESPN commands, but better than many basic networks. La Placa
also pointed out that a number of major events have drawn strong ratings on the network --
including baseball games. In 1996 where playoff games ran simultaneously on both ESPN and
ESPN2, for example, the ESPN2 game drew a very respectable 2.1 rating, he said.
Nevertheless, sources close to baseball said the league is
concerned that ESPN2's reach is too limited to support such a move, particularly
during the league's drive toward the playoffs.
To compensate for the homes not carrying ESPN2, LaPlaca
said the company would discuss alternative ways of distributing the network's game
feed to an alternative outle.