'Extra Innings’ Still In Play

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Against the backdrop of pitchers and catchers reporting to baseball spring-training camps last week, Major League Baseball, DirecTV and cable operators continued to toss out mixed signals regarding the fate of the sport’s “MLB Extra Innings” out-of-market package.

Executives close to several multiple-system operators said the cable industry late last week made a last-minute pitch to significantly increase the industry’s subscriber commitment to the league’s proposed channel, set to launch in 2009 — the major curveball in negotiations to secure the league’s out-of-market package of live games.

But other executives close to the negotiations said MLB could announce an exclusive Extra Innings distribution deal with DirecTV as early as this week.

The developments came as baseball commissioner Bud Selig said last week that whatever deal is cut would only adversely affect a “small” number of fans.

Executives close to the MSOs said cable has “significantly” increased its subscriber commitment to the launch of baseball’s planned 24-hour dedicated channel, although it’s unclear how big of a base has been promised.

Executives close to the negotiations said the commitment is for more households than the 15 million DirecTV subscribers that would put the planned service on the “Total Choice Plus” tier, part of DirecTV’s proposed $700 million, seven-year offer for exclusive rights to Extra Innings, which retails for $179 per season.

Initially the cable industry, through video-on-demand and pay-per-view content provider In Demand, said it would only distribute the channel via premium sports tiers, which on average reach less than 20% of all digital subscriber homes.

In Demand executives would not comment on the matter.

DirecTV’s proposed exclusive Extra Innings deal continues to set off protests from TV columnists, sports bloggers — and some MLB clubs. San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson told local newspaper the North County Times the deal would hurt some fans who want to watch both their local team and out-of-market games. Rightsholder Cox Communications offers Padres games exclusively to cable.

“If you have satellite TV, you can’t get the Padres,” Alderson said. “Now, if you have cable, you can’t get the MLB package. And if you want both, it means adding one or the other, and it would cost quite a bit of money.”

Selig weighed in last week on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike In the Morning. While no deal has been reached for Extra Innings, he said, reports of baseball fans being greatly disenfranchised if DirecTV got the exclusive arrangement are exaggerated.

“I expect people to understand that we thought all of these issues out, and there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll be quite surprised at how few people are affected,” he said. “When I look at the number of people that would be affected, it’s so small.”

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