MLB Network Comes Out Swinging

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Major League Baseball’s startup cable network will look to throw a pitch for a more extensive live game package when the league’s cable deals expire in 2013, according to MLB vice president of business Tim Brosnan.

Brosnan, who spoke Wednesday morning during the Sports Business Journal FSA Sports Media & Technology Conference, said the MLB Network will launch in 2009 with 50 million subscribers and will feature 26 live games during the 2008 season—most likely airing on Thursdays or Saturdays. On its inaugural night, the channel will feature a telecast of Don Larsen’s perfect game pitched during the 1956 New York Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers World Series.

But Brosnan said the network is positioning itself to be an active bidder for a much larger live game package once the current deals with ESPN, TBS and Fox expire in 2013. “The goal is to be in a position for a new package of games in five years,” he said.

As for its current deal with TBS, which includes all the divisional playoff games and one of the two league Championship Series, Brosnan said the jury is still out on its success.

“Turner’s ability to promote us has been a big plus, but what we need to work on is to teach the viewers that [MLB Playoff games] are on Turner and where Turner is,” he said.  

The opening panel of the conference focused on the business of sports television, with several sports executives agreeing that the sports marketplace will suffer on the advertising end as primary sponsor categories like the auto and financial industries struggle in a very uncertain economic climate.

YES Network CEO Tracy Dolgin believes that sports networks will weather the storm.

“Sports will do better than the rest of the world and the stronger networks will survive,” he said. “The more passion people have for a property, the better it will do.”

One area that will take a hit from a sports network perspective is new media, as some networks will have to scale back plans to do innovative interactive and other new applications until the economy resurrects itself, according to Dolgin.

One new media area that will command interest from sports executives is live streaming games. With the National Basketball Association, MLB and the National Hockey League considering live game streaming in local markets, Dolgin said the regional sports networks should be the entity charged with implanting local pro sports games on the Web, given their direct and often complicated distribution deals with satellite and cable operators.

“The control needs to be in the hands of the TV rights holders because if you break the current [operator-network] distribution model you can never put it back right,” he said.

But Comcast Sports Group president Jon Litner advised that leagues and networks proceed slowly on the issue to make sure that all parties benefit from the platform. “No one is in the street burning rubber because they can’t see the game on their computer,” he said.

NBA executive vice president for business affairs and general council Bill Koenig said the league is “trying to work out something” with distributors with regards to streaming but concedes the process can be “very complicated.” The NBA reportedly is asking regional networks to ante up $3,000 per game to stream local games on their Web sites.

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