Mets, MSOs Team Up

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Comcast Corp. last week continued to redefine the regional sports-network arena, teaming with Time Warner Cable and Major League Baseball’s New York Mets to launch a service in spring 2006.

The debut would give New York four regional sports networks — though some observers aren’t sure the market can support that unprecedented number of high-priced sports channels.

Financial terms of the agreement, which delivers a blow to Cablevision Systems Corp.-owned Madison Square Garden Network and FSN New York — which currently combine to carry 100 Mets games — were not disclosed. Sources, however, peg the Mets position at 60% of the yet-unnamed service, with Time Warner holding a 30% equity stake and Comcast, which will manage the RSN, controlling 10%.

For Comcast, which will make the service available to 790,000 expanded-basic homes in northern New Jersey, grabbing a piece of the Mets net is the latest in an array of moves that has seen it become a formidable sports player.

Over the past few months, Comcast — which had been running RSNs in Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C./Baltimore areas, as well as a small Southeastern college-sports channel — has announced a full-fledged service in central California, tied to the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings, and launched team-oriented networks for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys and MLB’s Atlanta Braves.

Last year, Comcast debuted a net tied to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

On Oct. 1, it began managing Comcast SportsNet Chicago, in which it also owns an equity stake with the owners of four pro teams in the area. The Mets net marks the first time two MSOs have paired in the ownership of a sports network.

Comcast also figures to be a major player in an RSN MLB is expected to establish with the Baltimore Orioles and the Montreal Expos, which baseball has relocated to the nation’s capital.

The Mets channel is not Time Warner’s first foray into RSN ownership: the MSO controls Metro Channel, which features Kansas City Royals baseball games and a Syracuse, N.Y.-based channel that offers Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League games.

But a spokesman said Time Warner “isn’t necessarily interested” in pursuing other regional sports network franchises.

In the Time Warner market of Houston, baseball’s Astros and basketball’s Rockets are currently planning to launch a regional sports network in 2005. The Astros, trying to end a contract with Fox Sports Southwest a year early, are in mediation talks with the RSN. The Rockets do not have a cable carriage agreement.

In New York, the new RSN, which will be available to some 2.3 million Time Warner homes, plans to present up to 125 regular-season Mets games, many in HD, and related programming.

It also expects to offer video-on-demand content and other professional and amateur sports events, with sources putting a bull’s eye on the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, whose contract with FSNY expires after the 2007 season.

The Mets followed the lead of their crosstown rivals: The New York Yankees bolted MSGN to create the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network in 2002.

The Mets could endure the same carriage contretemps with Cablevision as YES: the RSN was shut out from the MSO’s systems during its rookie campaign.

YES gained full distribution this past season after an arbitrator put it on Cablevision’s expanded-basic tier for six years.

“MSG Networks has had a long and successful relationship with the New York Mets that will continue through the 2005 baseball season,” the network said in a statement. “We will continue to carefully monitor the situation and will have no additional comment at this time.”

The Mets net would also seek agreements with direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network and overbuilder RCN Corp.

With three current RSNs costing distributors nearly $6 per month, the prospective cost of adding a fourth could be prohibitive.

Mike Reynolds contributed to the story.

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