New York-Fox Broadcasting Co. last week successfully stole ESPN's cable rights to post-season Major League Baseball games under a multibillion-dollar broadcast-rights deal with the league.
What Fox will do with the games is still up in the air, as the company mulls whether to run the five to seven, non-primetime playoff games on Fox Family, FX or Fox Sports Net-or sell them to another cable network.
Fox's six-year, $2.5 billion baseball-rights pact, announced last Wednesday, gives the programmer nearly all of the league's national TV exposures through 2006. The Fox Television Network will continue to air weekly regular-season games, and gains exclusivity for the All-Star Game, the World Series and all playoff games, according to representatives for both Fox and the league.
NBC, which had split the rights to All-Star and post-season games since 1996, declined to match Fox's bid. ESPN loses its share of divisional-series games, but will offer regular-season cable games through 2005 as part of an $800 million deal reached last year.
In 1999, ESPN averaged a 3.51 rating for its seven divisional-playoff telecasts, all of which were broadcast outside of primetime.
"All things considered equal, we're delighted with the regular-season package that we have," said an ESPN spokesman.
But Pilson Communications president and TV sports analyst Neal Pilson believes the deal gives Fox a competitive advantage over its all-sports network rival. "For Fox, I think politically and psychologically it represents a takeaway from ESPN," Pilson said.
Fox Sports president and executive producer Ed Goren said the network would consider offering divisional playoff games on cable networks Fox Family, Fox Sports Net or FX, but added that no definitive plans have been set.
Operators are already concerned that Fox will look to pawn off some of the package's cost through higher licensing fees. But Fox Sports vice president of media relations Lou D'Ermilio said that any discussion of increased fees is very premature.
"I think people are putting the cart before the horse," he said.
Sources said the most likely scenario would be for Fox to move the games to Fox Sports Net. The network already offers a national Thursday-night game each week and, through its affiliated regional-sports networks, reaches most of the cable-television universe.
Industry observers believe that if Fox tries to offer the games on either Fox Family or FX, it could run into resistance from baseball, which would want maximum exposure for the games.
Representatives from baseball could not be reached for comment.
Fox could also sell the rights to a third-party cable network. Turner Network Television has already expressed interest in a baseball cable package.
"I think we'll certainly investigate it and I'm sure we'll be talking to Fox about it," Turner Sports senior vice president of programming Kevin O'Malley said.
The $5.25 billion price tag is 45 percent higher than baseball's previous package, in which Fox and NBC split broadcast rights.