MLB’s PR Stunt

Baseball plays favorites with DirecTV
Publish date:

Major League Baseball’s announcement last Thursday that it would give In Demand and Dish Network the chance to match DirecTV’s renewal price for the Extra Innings out-of-market package looks like a blatant—and many say smart —public-relations strategy to ease pressure from baseball fans and even Washington.

And it sets up a frenzied, three-week battle that could resemble the ongoing carriage fight between NFL Network and the cable operators.

The sticking point is MLB’s apparent mandate that In Demand and Dish Network, with whom it had earlier contracts, must carry the new Baseball Channel, an MLB-backed network that will launch in 2009, on a basic-tier equivalent to that which DirecTV has agreed to offer the network.

And DirecTV has taken a minority stake in the new venture.

If In Demand and Dish balk, DirecTV has exclusive rights to the deal, which it was expected to end up with anyway at a price tag of about $700 million over seven years.

MLB had come under fire of late from fans and even legislators for taking the money and running to DirecTV, leaving about 230,000 fans who had subscribed to Extra Innings via their cabler to either bolt to DirecTV, watch games online, or live with less baseball.

But by offering the package publicly back to In Demand and Dish, MLB is hoping to win the PR war by telling fans it has done all it can and they should take their wrath out on the cable companies.

The NFL Network has eight exclusive games from the country’s most popular sport and it can’t get on basic, so don’t expect the cable operators to bend here either.

So between now and the end-of-month deadline, expect much public wrangling from MLB, the cablers and even Red Sox Nation’s own John Kerry, who has led the voices in Washington questioning baseball’s decision to give DirecTV the exclusive.

But in the end, when the first pitch is thrown in April, also expect DirecTV to have exclusive rights to the package.