MLB at odds with ESPN

End to deal is sought over pre-empting policy

May 05, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

A smoldering argument between baseball and ESPN that cost a national audience the chance to see the game in which Cal Ripken ended his consecutive-games streak last season has intensified, with baseball seeking to get out of its contract with the all-sports channel.

In a letter dated April 21, Paul Beeston, Major League Baseball's chief operating officer, informed ESPN that MLB will seek to end its regular-season deal at the end of this season because ESPN is looking to pre-empt Sunday night telecasts for NFL games.

ESPN in turn filed suit in federal court yesterday against baseball to keep in force the contract, which is scheduled to end in 2002.

"We'll go to court and say to the court, `We would like for you to tell baseball that they have to live up to their agreement,' " Dick Glover, ESPN's executive vice president of programming, said during a hastily convened conference call yesterday.

The fight, which does not affect the postseason contract, began in January 1998, when ESPN received exclusive cable rights to Sunday night football telecasts from the NFL at a cost of $550 million annually. The outlet informed baseball that it would shift its Sunday night baseball telecasts to ESPN2. Sunday night games averaged a 1.7 rating in September 1997 when they ran head-to-head against football games on TNT, which posted a 9.1 rating.

MLB officials, who have approval rights over the pre-emptions, immediately balked, and took the games away from ESPN, giving them back to local stations. One of the games -- the September meeting between the Orioles and Yankees -- happened to be the night that Ripken ended his consecutive-games streak at 2,632.

The feud appeared to have been settled or at least papered over, but ESPN has again decided to move three September games from its main channel, which has more than 76 million subscribers, to ESPN2, which is seen in 64.5 million homes. That incurred baseball's wrath and triggered the termination letter.

"Baseball regrets that it was forced to terminate its contract with ESPN at the end of the season," said Beeston in a news release. "We have had a good relationship with ESPN throughout this decade and we still cling to hopes that it will continue into the next."

Glover said ESPN, which can pre-empt up to 10 games with baseball's approval, has received pre-emption permission for golf, hockey and racing events and doesn't understand why baseball won't grant the same for football.

ESPN, said Glover, offered a number of situations to appease baseball, which is rumored to be seeking to take its package to Turner, but was rebuffed on all. Instead, Glover said, baseball sought to boost its rights fee from ESPN from the current $40 million to $130 million in exchange for permission to pre-empt for football.

ESPN refused.

"They have made nothing that we consider to be reasonable as a settlement. You can read into that whatever you want," Glover said.

Pub Date: 5/05/99

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