Baseball gets the bucks

Broadcast rights jump 14.7% from 2000, and games continue migration to cable

Regional cable networks and local TV and radio broadcasters are still paying big bucks for the local rights to carry games. They spent roughly $469 million this year, 14.7% more than last year, according to BROADCASTING & CABLE's annual baseball-rights survey.

And, as with last season, there are two big winners. First are the New York Yankees, which re-upped with MSG Network for $52 million. That's more than the rest of the teams in the American League East combined will make, giving the Yanks a true competitive advantage. Another big winner is Fox Sports Net, remaining the top local-rights holder for cable. Moreover, the cable network's interest in obtaining the local broadcast-TV rights remains strong. Half of the 30 Major League Baseball teams have sold both over-the-air and cable games to either Fox or its affiliates.

Fox's dominance of the marketplace intensified even further this season, its acquisition of CBS Cable's Midwest Sports Channel giving it the broadcast-TV and cable rights for the Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins. Also this season, Comcast SportsNet now has the broadcast-TV and cable rights to the Orioles as a result of its purchase of Home Team Sports.

Furthermore, Fox Sports Net Northwest reportedly spent $25 million for both the broadcast and cable rights to this year's Seattle Mariners games. It's all part of a new 10-year deal the team struck with Fox, following a bidding war with KIRO-TV Seattle, holder of the broadcast-TV rights for the past three seasons.

The bidding war was fueled by the Mariners' decision to sell the broadcast and cable rights together. Ackerly Communications, Action Sports (an affiliate of the Portland Trail Blazers), Belo, KIRO-TV and Fox Sports Net, were all vying for those rights, according to sources.

"You had a lot of people at the table throwing a lot of big numbers around," says Sandy Zogg, general sales manager at KIRO-TV. The negotiations got "out of hand"; there was no way that KIRO-TV could compete. As a result, KIRO-TV is sublicensing 34 Mariners games from Fox Sports Net.

However, that means local viewers will see fewer Mariner games over the air. Last year, KIRO-TV and its broadcast partner KSTW(TV) Seattle ran a total of 63 games (KSTW had 23 and KIRO-TV carried 40). Of course, on the flip side, cable subscribers will have access to more Mariners games this year: Fox Sports Net is offering 106, up from last season's 62.

The situation in Seattle reflects the continuing migration of games to cable (see table above). As the survey indicates, the average number of broadcast games per team fell from 52.4 in 2000 to 50.2 in 2001, a 4.3% decline. And, as last year, neither the Cincinnati Reds nor the Montreal Expos will have over-the-air broadcasts of games. The average number of baseball games per franchise on cable rose from 75 in 2000 to 80.6 in 2001, a 7.5% hike. Part of the increase, though, stems from the fact that, in 2000, the Expos failed to strike a deal for cable carriage of their games and none were aired. Overall, this season, regional cable networks will air 2,417 games, 910 more than the 1,507 that TV stations will carry.

At independent KCAL (TV) Los Angeles, the number of Anaheim Angels games has dropped from 50 to 40. This year, KCAL paid a rights fee as part of a new five-year deal; in the past, it has participated in a revenue-sharing arrangement with the team.

For KCAL, the reduction in games is due to the fact that local TV stations have fewer choices. "Our goal is to create the best schedule we can in time periods that the most number of people can watch the game," says Patrick McClenahan, KCAL senior vice president and station manager.

But, as McClenahan points out, games played in three key time periods have already been taken, including Saturday games, which air on Fox, and Sunday and Wednesday-night games, which are exclusive to ESPN. Furthermore, he notes that the increased number of games beginning at noon is also less appealing to broadcasters. "That has reduced the number of desired time periods for games that are available to us," he adds.

An even more significant reduction is at WPSG(TV) Philadelphia, which will carry only 45 Phillies games, compared with 70 last season. "It was a mutual decision," says Kevin O'Kane, vice president and general manager for WPSG.