MLB needs a better pitch

Poor ratings for All-Star game don't help baseball's case
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Because they were demanding that the next set of rights holders triple the current fees, Major League Baseball officials were hoping that a respectable rating for last week's All-Star game would bolster its case.

Whiff! Instead the game drew its lowest prime time rating ever, and now the league faces meetings with CBS and ABC within the next 10 days in which it will present the same packages that incumbents FOX and NBC rejected two weeks ago.

And sources say it's a sure bet that CBS and ABC will also reject MLB's pursuit of a three-fold rights increase. "At that rate, it's a big money loser," said one network source on the league's proposal for tripling the fees.

The way the talks are structured, there are no counteroffers per se. Like the incumbents (NBC and Fox), CBS and ABC will simply have the opportunity to accept or reject the same packages at the same prices rejected earlier by NBC and Fox.

If, as expected, MLB doesn't get any takers, the league will then have to go back to the current rights holders with amended terms-that is, lower asking prices. They either accept or reject, and the process continues that way until either the incumbent or an outside bidder accepts baseball's terms for each package.

It's a process that could drag on for months. "The baseball negotiating team [lead by MLB Chief Operating Officer Paul Beeston] is under a lot of pressure not to leave any money on the table," says one source involved. "You could see a back and forth where the price drops in increments of $10 million." Beeston was to have briefed team owners on the talks at a meeting last Friday in New York.

MLB currently wants $240 million a year for NBC's post-season package and $345 million annually for Fox's combined regular-season and post-season package. Most expect the FOX package to get done first.

MLB lost leverage in its negotiations, if it was counting on last week's All-Star game to demonstrate how popular America's favorite pastime is with TV viewers. The game averaged its lowest prime time rating ever, with a 10.1 rating and an 18 share. That was down a whopping 16% from Fox's telecast of the game last year.

Events and reality TV conspired to suppress the game's rating. Some of the game's biggest stars were sidelined with injuries, including Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., Pedro Martinez, Cal Ripken Jr. and Manny Ramirez. The highest-rated prime time show last Tuesday was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which averaged a 14.1/25.

Nevertheless, the game was still strong enough to give NBC the household win for prime time Tuesday, with a 9.7/17, followed by ABC's 9.1/16, CBS' 6.5/11 and Fox's 3.4/6.

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