Following one of Major League Baseball's more successful recent television campaigns, national and regional sports network executives are bracing for a potentially turbulent off-season that could yield a potential work stoppage and the loss of two franchises.
Executives from both Fox Sports and ESPN said they're cautiously optimistic that baseball owners and the Major League Players Association can iron out a new collective bargaining agreement prior to the beginning of the 2002 baseball season. If a deal is not reached over the winter, industry observers fully expect the sport's first work stoppage since 1994.
Neither Fox Sports nor ESPN would confirm whether financial provisions regarding a potential work stoppage are built into their respective contracts, but sources close to the situation said both networks are protected in the event of a baseball strike or an owner's lockout.
But even if neither network has to pay for lost games, a disruption in play would surely take its toll on both short-term and long-term baseball ratings.
It took baseball years to recover from the 1994 players' strike, which forced cancellation of the post-season and World Series. This year, several Fox Sports Net regional services posted strong local ratings, notably Fox Sports Northwest in Seattle and Fox Sports Southwest in Houston.
ESPN's 1.23 regular-season ratings average was 2 percent below its Nielsen Media Research average for 2000.
"It's a long process, but we're hopeful that it doesn't come to that," said an ESPN executive, who wished to remain anonymous.
Along with a potential work stoppage, several regional sports networks are waiting to see which teams, if any, would be eliminated as part of a proposed league contraction voted on by the owners last week. MLB owners plan to drop two clubs before the first pitch is thrown in the 2002 season — although the proposal, as expected, has met with strong union opposition. Industry observers are predicting that the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos are the two franchises most likely to be eliminated.
Though the Expos aren't distributed on any U.S.-based regional sports networks, the Twins' cable rights are at the center of a lawsuit between Fox Sports North and the upstart, team-owned Victory Sports network.
Fox Sports Net North sued the Twins and Victory Sports president Kevin Cattoor last May for trying to wriggle out of a long-term rights deal with the network. FSN contends its contract calls for an extension of its Twins deal through the 2002 and 2003 seasons, if there is "an acceptable stadium solution, excluding a new stadium."
But Cattoor contends the team does not have an "acceptable" stadium deal. FSN however, maintains that the Twins have a lease to play in the team's current stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, through the next two seasons.
But the legal wrangling could all go for naught if the Twins are folded. Cattoor did say the network, expected to launch in early 2002, will move forward with or without the Twins.
"It doesn't affect our plans to launch the service," Cattoor said. "We have ESPN News and programming from ESPN Regional Network, so there is other product on the channel."
He added that the network would pursue cable rights to the National Basketball Association Minnesota Timberwolves — and its Women's National Basketball Association counterpart, the Minnesota Lynx — after the teams' current deal with FSN expires at the end of the season.
Fox Sports Net North executives would not comment on the matter.