Execs Confident About Baseball's Future

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Cable-network executives are confident that their strong first-half Major League Baseball ratings will continue throughout the rest of the season, despite several recent black eyes for the sport — including talk of a player strike.

Having moved into the second half of the season, ESPN, Fox Sports Net and TBS Superstation are reporting ratings increases for their respective live baseball telecasts compared to last year. Through July 7, TBS Superstation's national Atlanta Braves telecasts averaged a 1.5 rating, up from last year's 1.4, according to Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes.

"TBS Braves baseball is by far the most dominant national cable baseball package on cable," Hughes said.

Overall, ESPN's baseball coverage through June averaged a 1.09 rating, down from a 1.21 last year. But ESPN senior vice president of research and sales development Artie Bulgrin said the channel's overall numbers include a slew of new weekday baseball telecasts, which typically don't perform as well as its primetime games.

The network last March acquired 50 regular-season games — weekly Monday-night and Wednesday-afternoon telecasts — from ABC Family and FX.

Bulgrin noted that ratings within the network's traditional Wednesday-doubleheader and Sunday-night windows were up 10 percent from last year.

"Sunday Night Baseball
is actually at a three-year high at a 2 rating over 14 telecasts, up 13 percent over last year," Bulgrin said.

Meanwhile, the new afternoon windows averaged a 0.7 rating, a 42 percent gain from the afternoon time slots in 2001.

Cumulative baseball ratings for Fox Sports Net's 21 regional sports networks through July 11 were up 9 percent from last season, posting a 3.65 versus a 3.35 in 2001, according to FSN executives.

Baseball ratings typically ascend during the late summer, as pennant and playoff races heat up, and network executives expect the trend to hold this season. But recent allegations of steroid use among players and the possibility of a strike have placed a dark cloud over baseball's immediate and long-term futures.

ESPN, TBS Superstation and FSN executives would not discuss contingency plans in case of a strike, nor would they comment on any existing financial compensation plans for the loss of baseball telecasts due to a strike.

Sources close to the situation, however, said that MLB would compensate the networks for lost telecasts should there be a protracted work stoppage.

"We certainly hope that it doesn't happen, but we will be prepared and protected if it does," said one network executive.

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