N.J. Agency Rules No on Pro-YES Bill

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The same week the New York Yankees opened their exhibition schedule with a loss, a New Jersey agency dealt the Major League Baseball team's cable TV network another setback.

The state Office of Legislative Services issued an opinion that said a bill designed to help the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network gain carriage on Cablevision Systems Corp.'s operation in the Garden State was unconstitutional. Lawmakers said they'll consider the measure anyway.

Assemblyman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) and 31 other legislators sponsored or co-signed the bill., which originally stated that companies that own sports and entertainment venues, such as Cablevision, but refuse to deal with unaffiliated program suppliers, such as YES, could be found to be violating state antitrust law.

Cablevision, the dominant cable operator in suburban New York City, has refused to add the network, part-owned by Yankees holding company YankeeNets LLC, to its local lineup, citing a $2-per-subscriber monthly license fee. Cablevision offered to sell YES on an individual basis, instead of in expanded basic.

YES officials declined, and the two sides have been unable to reach a compromise.

Bethpage, N.Y.-based Cablevision owns the New York market's two other regional sports services — Madison Square Garden Network and Fox Sports New York — as well as the Madison Square Garden arena, the National Basketball Association's New York Knicks and the National Hockey League's New York Rangers. YES controls the TV rights to the NBA's New Jersey Nets, also owned by YankeeNets.

Before YES was established last March, MSGN controlled Yankees television rights, while FSNY held exclusive rights to the Nets.

The New Jersey bill was amended on Feb. 24 to remove the language referring to sports and entertainment venue ownership. The bill now targets cable companies with investments in programming, of any kind.

An exasperated Karen Alexander, president of the New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association, said the cable industry is trying to persuade legislators that such a move to aid YES would result in a legal challenge.

"But the whole issue has become a political football. If they do what's legally correct, the bill should die. But who knows what will happen?" she said.

Removing the "sports and venue ownership" language makes the proposal even more broad and unconstitutional, she said.

The industry's dissent is supported by the state OLS, which last week issued a written opinion that the bill was pre-empted by federal law would likely be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

Despite the criticism, the bill was adopted as amended on Feb. 24 and is headed for a vote of the full Assembly on March 3, according to a state legislative clerk.

The first Yankees game scheduled to be televised on YES will be a March 13 spring-training game against the Boston Red Sox.

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