Adding a key link to their chain of regional sports
networks, Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. and Fox Sports Net agreed to buy SportsChannel
Florida last week.
The deal is expected to accelerate a merger between SC
Florida and Sunshine Network, which is owned by Fox Sports Net and a group of cable
operators that includes Cox Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Adelphia Communications
Corp. and AT&T Broadband & Internet Services.
"Now Fox will be competing against Fox for the rights
deals that come up, unless they can get these two networks [Sunshine and SC Florida]
together," Sunshine general manager Jim Liberatore said.
Merger talks will begin "once this news settles in and
everyone tries to decide what it means," he added.
Rainbow Programming Partners, the Rainbow and Fox Sport Net
joint venture, will acquire the majority stake in SC Florida from owner H. Wayne Huizenga,
Fox Sports president Jeff Shell said.
Huizenga will sell his 70 percent stake for $110 million, TheMiami Herald reported.
Rainbow, Cablevision Systems Corp.'s programming
subsidiary, already owns a 30 percent stake in the channel.
The deal is a setback for CNN/SI, which SC Florida uses as
a backdrop service when it's not running regional sports. CNN/SI currently sells 12
to 14 hours of sports-news programming per day to SC Florida.
"At some point in the future, we will rename and
rebrand that channel Fox Sports Net, and we will carry Fox Sports Net programming,"
The acquisition is expected to close during the first
quarter. No date has been set for the programming switch.
CNN/SI president Jim Walton downplayed the anticipated loss
of his network's programming on SC Florida, emphasizing that CNN/SI is focused on
gaining distribution on a stand-alone basis.
"We had a good relationship with SportsChannel
Florida, but never have we built this thing based on being a backdrop for another
network," Walton said.
Sunshine currently runs Fox Sports Net programming during
the day. Liberatore said he expects the Sunshine board to pull the Fox programming from
the channel soon.
"From a logistical standpoint, the argument can be
made: Why are we going to run and promote Fox programming when it is in fact going to our
competition? That has been the board's contention," Liberatore said.
The deal comes as activity is picking up in the regional
sports market. ESPN recently struck separate deals with New England Sports Network and
Comcast Sports Southeast, agreeing to sell blocks of ESPNews programming to the regional
For new sports networks such as ESPNews and CNN/SI, selling
blocks of programming to regional channels may be a way to whet the appetite of cable
subscribers who may want them full-time after watching each network's programming on
a regional channel.
"In the current environment, being able to be seen in
this way, on a part-time basis, is not a bad marketing vehicle for us. Once you see the
product, you're inclined to want it all the time," ESPN vice president of
distribution Bryan Burns said.
CNN/SI would only agree to sell programming to a regional
network if the network agreed to make CNN/SI the "default" network when it is
not carrying local sports programming, Walton said.