Because of the popularity of local sports teams — and the fear of a backlash from rabid fans — cable operators have been reluctant to drop regional sports services, or lose carriage of them in any way.
But there were two incidents in the past year in which Fox Sports Midwest was temporarily pulled from cable systems because of disputes over rate increases.
After failing to reach contract-renewal terms early this year, the Fox Cable Networks Group deauthorized Fox Sports Midwest's signal from St. Joseph Cablevision in St. Joseph, Mo., and Sunflower Broadband in Lawrence, Kan.
"Both were contract expirations, and there was a dispute over renewals and we turned them off," said Fox Cable executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Lindsay Gardner. "We take our contracts seriously and we enforce them seriously."
In those two cases, officials with St. Joseph Cablevision and Sunflower — small cable systems in the Midwest — claim there wasn't much of a negative reaction from subscribers when Fox Sports Midwest went away.
But both operators did wind up finalizing deals to resume carrying the network, which — in Gardner's view — is a testament to the "unique local value" of the regional service.
Big fee hike
St. Joseph Cablevision, with 30,000 subscribers, balked late last year when Fox Cable wanted to substantially raise license fees for Fox Sports Midwest, in the double- to triple-digit range. The network's slate of sports properties includes Major League Baseball's Kansas City Royals and Big 12 college football games.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is
a native of St. Joseph, and Lawrence is the home of Kansas University, a Big 12 school.
St. Joseph Cablevision general manager Tom Severin said he was warned in December that Fox Sports Midwest would pull its signal if no contract renewal was signed by January, when the deal in question expired.
Thus, St. Joseph Cablevision prepared to kick off a campaign of its own to explain what was happening and what the system's position was. Even though Fox Cable was the one pulling the signal, Severin thought subscribers would blame the cable system for the loss of Fox Sports Midwest.
"In the customers' eyes, it doesn't really matter who pulls the plug, because I'm the provider," Severin said. "I'm the point of contact."
St. Joseph Cablevision began running a spot in December warning customers that Fox Sports Midwest would come off the system's lineup. In the spot, Severin explained that he was trying hard to get a deal done with the sports network, but the rate increase Fox was seeking was "unjust," and he didn't want to pass it on to subscribers.
"It was overwhelming the number of phone calls I received from customers," Severin said. "People said, 'I'm going to miss that channel, but I support what you're trying to do to keep my rate lower.' "
Fox initiated its own public-relations campaign, according to Severin.
"They ran crawls on bottom of their screen that said, 'St. Joseph Cablevision is going to drop Fox Sports Jan. 18: They're the only cable provider in St. Joseph that won't be carrying our signal. Call this 800 number if you'd like to voice your opinion,' " Severin said. "They would forward that call to our call center. It just didn't work."
Severin said his cable system received very few complaints — and less than 10 disconnects — when Fox Sports Midwest's signal was deauthorized in January, and even when the baseball season started months later.
"We lived without the Royals," Severin said. "We're 45 minutes from Royals Stadium, but we lived without them all summer. I only had one gentleman that I talked to about once a month, and that's it."
Like St. Joseph Cablevision, 27,000-subscriber Sunflower was facing a big rate increase for Fox Sports Midwest when its contract expired at the start of this year, according to general manager Patrick Knorr. Fox Cable did pull the signal at a "mutually agreed" upon date, Knorr said.
After the drop, Sunflower surveyed its subscribers and found that the majority said they didn't want to pay $1 extra a month to add Fox Sports Midwest to their expanded-basic service, according to Knorr.
Nat Geo in deal
Sunflower got "a few hundred" complaints about the loss of Fox Sports Midwest, but only a dozen disconnects that could be directly attributed to the loss of the regional sports service, Knorr said.
During the late summer, Sunflower and St. Joseph Cablevision reached terms on a renewal with Fox Sports Midwest, getting a license-fee discount in exchange for launching National Geographic Channel on expanded basic, according to Gardner. The sports service returned to the operators' programming lineups in the summer.
Both small operators wanted to get Fox Sports Midwest back on in time for college football.
"Ultimately we decided it was best to add Fox back," Knorr said. "It was a very difficult decision, because we only lost a handful of customers when we dropped them … but we have had all these students coming in for the fall, and K.U. had a new coach. That was all a big factor [in reinstating Fox Sports Midwest]."
The further a cable system is from the urban center in which a professional sports team is based — whether it's the Royals, the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues or Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals — the more inclined that operator is not to carry it, Fox Cable noted.
"For these two operators to decide that at that moment, when their contract expired, that Fox Sports Midwest didn't have value for them commensurate with the fees were we seeking, that's their prerogative," Gardner said. "Evidently, we kept after them and we came up with a deal that worked for both of us."