Baseball nearing deal on cable TV Sources say ESPN in lead for package American League

July 03, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- By the time it plays its All-Star Game on July 13, Major League Baseball probably will have a new cable TV contract.

Phillies president Bill Giles, a member of the owners' television committee, said the owners are close to cutting a deal with either ESPN or Liberty Media, which owns Prime Ticket Sports Network and SportsChannel America.

ESPN is the front-runner. Sources close to the negotiations say the all-sports network has offered between $150 million and $200 million to broadcast three games a week for the next four years.

That's substantially less than the $400 million ESPN paid baseball four years ago. But times have changed.

That became apparent a month and a half ago when the owners reluctantly approved a risky, new network deal with NBC and ABC in which baseball, for the first time, will receive no rights-fee money from the networks, but take most of the profits from TV ad sales.

Even in a best-case scenario, the new network deal figures to earn the owners 40 percent to 50 percent less than the $265 million per year they've gotten from CBS the past four years.

If ESPN gets baseball again, it will show just three games a week, down from the current six. Sunday and Wednesday have been mentioned as two of the probable days. Also, one of the three games probably would be an afternoon game.

According to sources, Liberty Media has made a better financial offer than ESPN. But the baseball owners are reluctant to make the same short-sighted mistake the NHL made in the late 1980s when it signed with SportsChannel.

The NHL sacrificed viewership for more money, signing on with a cable network that, at the time, was shown in just 9 million U.S. homes.

Liberty's outlets, which include SportsChannel, Prime Ticket, MSG in New York and Sports New England in Boston, goes into about 30 million homes. But that's still half the 60 million households that have ESPN.

"Baseball will be making a terrible mistake if they sign with Liberty, and I think they know that," one network executive said. "I think they're just keeping Liberty around to make ESPN bid higher than they might otherwise pay."

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