Spring Brings Sports-TV Deals

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A new team-owned regional sports network declared itself open for business last week with a key cable-distribution pact, and several other sports networks followed suit by doing cable deals.

Black Entertainment Television chairman Robert Johnson bolstered the official announcement of his new Charlotte, N.C.-based regional sports network C-SET with carriage on Time Warner Cable. Elsewhere, NBA TV and several Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. regional sports networks reached long-term distribution deals with top MSO Comcast Corp. And NFL Network scored with Insight Communications Co.

BOBCATS AS BASE

Johnson's network — formally called Carolinas Sports Entertainment Television, and aimed at North and South Carolina — will feature a range of programming, centered by 60 games from Johnson's expansion Charlotte Bobcats National Basketball Association franchise, according to network officials.

Time Warner Cable, with 1.7 million subscribers in the two states, will distribute the network to approximately 600,000 digital-basic subscribers.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sources said the network's monthly rate card falls between $1.25 to $1.35 per subscriber. C-SET is also negotiating carriage deals with other MSOs in its coverage area.

"It was important to start with Time Warner because they're the dominant operator in the market," C-SET executive vice president of media rights and entertainment Naomi Travers said. "We're going to try to get the widest and the broadest distribution possible, and we'll use the Time Warner agreement as the standard for our other deals."

Johnson had talked with Fox Sports Net South about distributing games on that Atlanta-based service — fully distributed in 3.4 million homes — before opting for his own network.

FSN South, meanwhile, has long-term rights to the National Hockey League's Carolina Hurricanes franchise.

"I think for the team, the viewers and distributors, we are a better solution," Fox Sports Net president Robert Thompson said.

Along with the Bobcats, C-SET will also feature games from the WNBA's Charlotte Sting, and will look to carry local college and high school athletics, arena football, motor sports, minor league baseball and hockey, outdoor sports and extreme sports, said network officials.

Travers said the network will also showcase entertainment programming, based out of the new Charlotte arena, which opens in 2005.

"Since we'll be operating the arena and bringing in acts and entertainment events, we thought it was a wonderful opportunity to develop a flow of entertainment-focused content," he said.

NBA DEALS

In a two-part distribution agreement, the NBA last Tuesday announced a distribution deal with Comcast for the NBA TV digital service, as well as a highlights-driven video-on-demand package.

Comcast in April will begin rolling out NBA TV on a special "digital extra" tier in several markets served by former AT&T Broadband systems, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle. Other networks included on their tier, which retails at an average price of $5, include BET on Jazz, GoodLife TV, Outdoor Life Network, Trio, Fox Sports World and Bloomberg TV.

Comcast Cable president Steve Burke said the MSO has the option of placing NBA TV on sports tiers, which the operator plans to roll out later this year. "We plan to start by putting it on a tier and see what the demand is and see what the programming is, but where it all ends up remains to be seen," he said.

On the VOD front, NBA TV will offer highlights packages and other shoulder programming to Comcast's On Demand service.

This marks the first league's first VOD deal, NBA TV president Ed Desser said, noting that the offerings have separate rate cards. Desser would not specify the pricing.

"We're putting our feet in the water [with VOD] to see what our fans are most interested in with regard to making use of this technology," Desser said. "We have tried to be at the forefront of utilizing whatever new technology has evolved, so the advent and fairly wide availability of VOD presents a new opportunity to dip our toe in the water."

REGIONAL EXTENSIONS

Comcast last week also extended affiliate deals for Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.'s regional sports networks Fox Sports Net Bay Area, FSN Florida and FSN New England.

Terms of the deal, which also includes a long-term carriage deal for AMC, were not disclosed.

As part of the agreement, the three regionals will soon distribute all home games of the pro-sports teams they carry in high-definition format, said officials from Rainbow, a unit of Cablevision Systems Corp.

It has been speculated that Comcast — which controls three regional sports networks in other markets — also has designs on owning the FSN regionals covered by this deal. Rainbow owns a majority stake in all three and manages them, while News Corp.'s FSN has minority stakes.

Comcast recently backed a new regional sports network in Chicago in partnership with the owners of that city's top pro sports teams. The MSO will own 30% of that network, set to launch this year in competition with FSN Chicago, whose content has been severely compromised by the loss of those professional games.

NFL Network last Thursday reached a digital carriage contract with Insight the service said pushes it past the 20-million sub plateau. NFL Network also has distribution deals with Charter Communications Inc., DirecTV Inc. and Voom.

Insight, which reaches 1.4 million subscribers in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, will launch the service on its digital tier, and NFL Network will provide the MSO with a separate high-definition simulcast feed beginning with the 2004 pro football season, as well as a customized video-on-demand package that includes access to the NFL Films library and extended highlights of each regular-season game.

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