A Season Like No Other

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Spring training's in bloom, but it seemed like the 2003 Major League Baseball season never really ended.

It was arguably the most compelling post-season in the game's storied history. The Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs painfully extended their championship droughts for yet another season. And Curt Shilling, Vladimir Guerrero, Greg Maddux and Alex Rodriguez were among the perennial all-stars that changed squads this off-season.

The hot-stove league was also stoked on the TV side. The recent completion of News Corp.'s sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers to Frank McCourt will keep the club on Fox Sports Net West's lineup for years to come.

For its part, Comcast Corp. is preparing to launch a regional network in Chicago next fall that will, starting with the 2005 season, switch out the Cubs and their Southside rivals, the Chicago White Sox, from FSN Chicago.

Elsewhere, the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, the cable home of the Bronx Bombers, and Cablevision Systems Corp. are awaiting an arbitration decision that will determine where the MSO can position the regional.

Victory Sports has gained Twins cable rights from FSN North and will carry 105 games this season. But Victory has yet to ink pacts with Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the MSOs that serve much of Minneapolis-St. Paul market.

FSN CONTROVERSIES

In Denver, Kroenke Sports will bow a regional, replete with NBA Nuggets and the NHL Colorado Avalanche next fall, and figures to take a run at MLB's Colorado Rockies, a gambit FSN Rocky Mountain wants to prevent.

"We're in conversations with our clubs all the time. But with what's going on, we'll try to be aggressive with the Rockies," says FSN COO Randy Freer. "We have a long-term agreement and will look to what we can do with them beyond the deal."

FSN is also under fire in Houston, where MLB's Astros are looking to team with the NBA's Rockets on a regional sports network that would put the baseball team on that service in 2006, a year after the basketball squad. Fox claims the Astros are breaking their contract to become part of the network. And a Texas judge recently ordered the sides to sit down at a mediation hearing and settle their legal dispute before an April 5 trial.

Citing the judge's request, Freer declined comment, but did point out that despite moves by clubs to form their own networks, FSN still controls the rights to 24 of the 28 MLB teams in America.

LOTS OF GAMES TO AIR

The scrambling for rights to MLB team telecasts is rooted in value in the eyes of programmers and advertisers. While some lament the sport's older audience skew, the sheer number of games and ancillary shows provide for myriad programming hours and ratings points annually.

Continuing the trend of local/regional games migrating from broadcast to cable, FSN owned-and-affiliated regionals will air 2,500 ballgames in 2004, up from 2,250 last season. Ending six years of growth, FSN regional averaged a 3.43 household DMA rating last year, according to the company. That's down 3% from a 3.5 in 2002.

Changes at ESPN include televising preseason games, 13 in all, for the first time since 1995. "We've had the rights, but we felt the timing was good this year coming off an incredible post-season, which we were part of with the most-watched division series in cable history," says Len De Luca, senior vice president, programming strategy. "Then, there's been this incredibly hot off-season, including Boston and New York's 'l'affaire de Arod.' "

ESPN posted a 1.04 average rating for 87 games last year, including a 1.9 for 22 contests on its exclusive Sunday-night window, versus a 1.06 rating for 99 games in 2003. ESPN2 averaged a 0.55 for 61 games, compared with a 0.6 for 57 contests the year before. In the post-season, ESPN's nine telecasts averaged a 3.9, while ESPN2 notched a 2.8 for four playoff tilts.

This season, ESPN plans as many as 176 regular and post-season games, including the season opener on March 30 between the Yankees/Tampa Bay Devil Rays from Tokyo at 5 a.m. (EST). The Emmy Award-winning Baseball Tonight, which De Luca calls the "baseball show of record," will also run more frequently.

"Baseball's in our DNA from March through October," says De Luca.

ADDING INNOVATIONS

Freer says FSN will continue to strive to bring more innovations to its telecasts. "We'll have more games in HD, put cameras all around the ballparks, including in the bullpens again," he says. "MLB has a blue-ribbon committee emphasizing that its television partners do all they can to bring fans closer to the game. We're committed to finding more ways to make the game more exciting."

Fox Sports Northwest's approach to bringing fans closer to the Seattle Mariners means more M's, more of the time. FSN's highest-rated regional with baseball, NW averaged an 11 DMA rating for 146 games in 2003, a performance that marked the fifth time in seven seasons it had scored a double-digit Nielsen average.

On the tube, FSN NW also airs a host of ancillary Mariners programming, including condensed game replays, pre-and post-game shows, Mariners Weekly/Monthly magazine fare, and lots of smaller vignettes and features.

Its latest addition to the lineup is Before The Bigs, featuring a series of player and executive profiles that focus on what they did before hitting the pro baseball diamond.

"We sent crews to their hometowns and gathered old footage," says general manager Mark Shuken. "We have [second baseman] Bret Boone as a 9-year-old on The Mike Douglas Show, blowing three bubbles inside a piece of gum."

Last season, TBS Superstation averaged a 1.1 household rating for 85 Atlanta Braves games, a mark the network says enabled it to tie or lead national cable baseball ranking for nine of the past 10 years.

CLUSTERING GAMES

This year, TBS will present 82 contests and take a somewhat different approach to scheduling, clustering more games in April, May and June and September. Turner Sports president David Levy says the network hopes to get out of the gate fast with the first 10 games against the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets and world champion Florida Marlins. He believes the early-season contests will benefit from cross-promotion on sister network's coverage of the NBA playoffs.

"The Braves will also be part of TBS's rebranding efforts in June, July and August, and then we come back with more games in September, hopefully for the pennant push," he says.

The Braves, which have won their division for an unprecedented 11 consecutive seasons, will also take 46 turns at bat on regional network, Turner South.

WGN Superstation is coming off a strong season with the Cubs, which narrowly missed going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Overall, 70 Cubs telecasts rose 18% to 455,000 households from the 2002 campaign and 35% to 315,000 adults 25 to 54. "We're coming off a very strong finish, and we expect interest to be strong all year, especially with the rival St. Louis Cardinal and Houston, which has also put together a strong club," says Chris Manning, vice president, general sales manager for WGN Superstation.

Manning says WGN is offering a new wrinkle to advertisers: a sports ticker running on the bottom of the screen on Cubs and Chicago White Sox games with opportunities for sponsors. He believes the on-air component will be a value-added incentive to lure in more scatter-market players.

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