ESPN not happy with thought, but could live without baseball

Media Watch

August 31, 1999|By Milton Kent

BRISTOL, Conn. -- For nine years, baseball has been an important component of the ESPN schedule, but if the fight between the worldwide leader and Major League Baseball doesn't turn out well, ESPN president George Bodenheimer said he is prepared to move on.

"We love baseball. You see what we do on the air every day with baseball. You saw what we did [Sunday night] with the baseball game. We did a great job and then we moved to `SportsCenter' and we covered all the big stories," Bodenheimer said yesterday, speaking to a room of reporters covering ESPN's impending 20th anniversary.

But it's not quite that simple. Unhappy that ESPN attempted to relocate three Sunday night baseball games last fall to ESPN2 while airing NFL games on the main channel, MLB informed ESPN that it would terminate its broadcast contract after the season.

ESPN, in turn, filed suit in federal court to block baseball from ending the deal, which is to run through 2002. Baseball countersued, and the matter is to be heard by a judge in November.

"We want to be in the baseball business," Bodenheimer said. "We hope we get the chance to fulfill the contract. Unfortunately, it's disintegrated into a courtroom situation. There will be plenty of programming [if it's not resolved]."

Bouncing back

A couple of weeks ago, Kenny Mayne was handed a career setback when he found out he would have to share the regular 11 p.m. weeknight "SportsCenter" co-anchor slot he had worked so hard to get.

It was just the latest in a series of personal and professional knocks the self-effacing and well-liked Mayne has been dealt, and yet, in the grand scheme of things, it almost doesn't matter.

Mayne's wife, Laura, gave birth to a daughter, Riley Hope, on Aug. 16. The baby's arrival comes after the couple had gone through miscarriages and experienced the death of twin boys within months of each other two years ago.

In that vein, getting moved to another time slot isn't a big deal.

"Supposedly, I have had this downturn, but my family life is coming around and that's really all that's important," Mayne said the other day.

Mayne, who had shared 11 p.m. duties with Dan Patrick for two years, will go into a rotation with Patrick -- who is cutting back on "SportsCenter" to devote more time to his family and a new radio show -- and Stuart Scott, Rich Eisen and Linda Cohn.

Mayne will be seen on the 1 a.m. "SportsCenter," which re-airs throughout the morning and is seen by more people cumulatively than the 11 p.m. show, ESPN officials hasten to say.

"I guess one way to look at it is, I may have been demoted to second string, but we get to play more games," Mayne said.

Out of touch

Sports Illustrated's brilliant NFL preview issue included the transcript of a fascinating round-table discussion among six individuals from various league factions.

We noted, with particular interest, comments regarding the league's television blackout policy, and were especially distressed to read commissioner Paul Tagliabue's observation that changing the rules would be "a tragic, tragic mistake" for the league and its fans.

Tagliabue, who fails to get it more than any other sports titan, offered that a lifting of the rules would hurt the live gate, saying: "It's perfectly clear to me that if you don't sell out games when you're not on television, you won't sell them out when they are on television."

The truth of the matter is that fans will always turn out to see a winner. Maybe if some owners were forced to actually put a quality product on the field, rather than sit on their guaranteed television bundle, the fans would come to see the product both in person and on the screen.

If nothing else, the league should modify the blackout rule, which requires teams to sell their games out 72 hours before kickoff in order to clear the signal to the home market.

If the teams insist on a blackout, why not 48 or 24 hours before kickoff, and how about dropping the requirement of a complete sellout to 75 or 80 percent?

Also, the silly doubleheader rule, which prohibits the networks from bringing three afternoon games into a television market whose home team is playing at home, has to be revisited, and Tagliabue said he might be persuaded to compromise on the matter.

As Bodenheimer said yesterday, in an era of ever-escalating rights fees, all sports leagues are going to have to do what's reasonable to help their network partners recoup those fees.

By the way, it would have been nice if CNN/SI had televised this forum, which included players union chief Gene Upshaw, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, Fox Sports president David Hill and Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter.

It would be even nicer if some outlet arranged regular forums like this between players and officials of all the major sports and let the public see them.

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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