Mets Set Sights on SportsNet NY Launch

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The New York Mets’ cable-TV rights deal with Cablevision Systems Corp. ended Sunday [Oct. 2], but the club, along with its teammates in a new regional sports network, will still have to play ball with the MSO in an effort to gain distribution for the new service.

The Mets, with network co-owners Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., last Thursday unveiled the SportsNet New York name and brand — a takeoff on the latter operator’s stable of Comcast SportsNet-branded regional sports networks. The Mets hold a 65% stake in the new service, slated to bow next spring. Comcast owns two-thirds of the balance, and Time Warner Cable the remaining one-third, according to sources.

Network executives said negotiations with several distributors, including Cablevision and direct-broadcast satellite distributors DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp., are underway. As expected, Time Warner and Comcast have already committed to carrying the channel on digital basic, giving it some 3 million subscribers.

But the industry’s eyes will be on the rookie network’s negotiations with Cablevision. SportsNet New York president John Litner said he’s confident the network will be able to reach a carriage deal with the MSO, which counts some 3 million subscribers in the New York area.

Cablevision filed suit last year to stop the Mets from pursuing the new network before the team’s current deal with Cablevision’s Fox Sports Net New York concluded. (Mets contests also aired on Cablevision-owned Madison Square Garden Network.) A New York State Supreme Court judge threw out the suit this past August.

Cablevision also played hardball with the New York Yankees, which left MSGN after the 2001 season to start their own regional sports service. A bitter and public carriage dispute shut out the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network from Cablevision subscribers for the entire 2002 season. After an interim deal was reached for 2003, an arbitrator settled the ongoing clash over network positioning and pricing just prior to the start of the 2004 campaign, resulting in a long-term pact that put YES on expanded basic, but lowered its licensing fee.

“We anticipate that come launch, we will be fully distributed to all fans within our footprint,” Litner said.

Executives from Cablevision could not be reached for comment by press time.

SportsNet New York executives would not reveal rate-card specifics, but sources said the service’s price will be “significantly lower” than YES’s $2 to $2.25 licensing fee.  Network sources added the service will insist on digital-basic carriage, rather than distribution on regional sports tiers.    

Along with New York Mets telecasts, the network will feature up to 30 college football games and 85 college basketball tilts featuring teams from such conferences as the Big East and the Big Ten.

Following Comcast’s model with its other RSNs, SportsNet New York will feature three nightly SportsNite news shows, as well as a daily SportsRise morning program that will originate from the network’s New York-based studio.

Litner said the network would import programming from CSN outlets in Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore/Washington D.C., as well as Time Warner’s Turner South network, to support its news and information programming. All Mets home games and studio shows will be shot in HDTV, Litner said.

The network will also feature a “robust” video-on-demand offering, but no details were provided.

Litner noted that the network expects to make a package of games available to local broadcast networks, although it’s unclear how many would be offered.

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