MLB: Whos at bat?

With rights now available, CBS held likeliest baseball bidder, but major league negotiators are striking out
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TV rights to Major League Baseball are now open to all comers because a negotiating lockup with current holders NBC and FOX expired.

MLB is now free to coax fat packages out of CBS and ABC, although only CBS is expected to eagerly pursue a package.

NBC and FOX both balked at an attempt last week to triple the rate of their existing deals, from $115 million to $345 million annually for FOX and from $80 million to $240 million for NBC. MLB officials are riveted by the recent jumps for TV rights, but network executives are distracted by baseball's soft ratings.

Baseball wants a richer deal in large part because other sports are getting them. In 1997, the NBA agreed to four-year deals with Turner Broadcasting and NBC for a combined $2.64 billion. The NFL struck it rich in 1998 with a $17.6 billion, eight-year deal with CBS, FOX and Disney. And last year, CBS agreed to pay $11 billion for a six-year contract with the NCAA that begins in 2003.

Network executives said the handicapping of the contest hasn't changed in recent weeks. NBC and FOX are believed to be eager to renew their packages. Long lukewarm on baseball, ABC is seen as even more hesitant because of bigger problems at parent, The Walt Disney Co. And Disney's ESPN already has a place in baseball; it's in the first year of a $800 million six-year baseball pact.

CBS is the wild card, with CBS Sports President Sean McManus interested, but bosses at Viacom CBS worried about taking big losses on another sports deal.

One Wall Street executive said Viacom CBS has been considering taking a sizable write-off on the network's current National Football League package. CBS Television President Les Moonves is particularly worried about the disrupting his fall prime time schedule with World Series and playoff games.

One network executive predicted the TV negotiations could take two more months to play out.

Competition allows MLB to sell off the game's premier events, like the All-Star game, playoffs and World Series. Until the impasse, NBC and FOX had exclusive negotiating windows for those marquee games.