HOUSTON (AP) - Houston Astros owner Jim Crane hopes Comcast SportsNet Houston will agree to pay his team what he calls a fair amount for its media rights, and they can boost carriage after a season where only 40 percent of the city could view the games.
But for now the situation has gotten uglier. The network recently filed bankruptcy, followed by the Astros filing a motion to dismiss that case. The Astros say the network filed the motion to gain leverage over the team in the dispute.
"These TV deals are really the backbone of all these teams right now," Crane said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's not like we're trying to get something any different than anybody. We want the fans to see the games, but we're not going to cut a long-term 20-year bad deal. It will handicap us for that period of time."
The media rights deals help teams bankroll the player's salaries, which is an interesting subject with the Astros. They had the lowest payroll in the majors last season at under $30 million as they finished with more than 100 losses for the third straight year.
The Astros have invested heavily to improve their farm system since Crane bought the team, but skimped on the big league squad as they traded away almost all the veterans and went into full rebuilding mode. He vowed this week that next season will be different.
"We've restocked the team," he said. "We feel we've got a nucleus of players that we know can play now. This year will be the year we'll start spending money."
He said that they team only received about 30 percent of its TV rights fees this season because of the dispute. But added that he will spend money on the team in the upcoming season no matter what
"We're still going to stick with our plan regardless of how this turns out, even if it's at a deficit to some degree," he said. "And go ahead and start filling in the holes ... the payroll will move up significantly this year."
The network also broadcasts Houston Rockets games. Their first regular-season game is Oct. 30, which the Astros hope will help in the negotiations.
The hearing on the Astros' motion to dismiss the bankruptcy case will be heard on Oct. 28. Giles Kibbe, the team's general counsel, said that if the bankruptcy petition is thrown out the Astros would be able to terminate the media rights agreement with CSN Houston and license them to anyone else. If that happens, he expects that Astros and Rockets would search for another deal together.
Crane bought the team when the partnership with CSN was already in place. He lamented that the majority of viewers in the Houston area were unable to watch his team this season.
"It's devastating for the brand and the team," he said. "This is a team that's got a lot of history and a lot of loyal fans and we've got to get the games on TV. It's been a very tough year, not only on the field but having this situation develop."
He added that they would explore the possibility of streaming the games on the internet if a deal can't be reached by the start of next season.
Crane wouldn't say the exact number he is looking for, but pointed to the Texas Rangers as an example of the kind of deal he would be happy with. The Rangers have a television rights deal that is worth about $3 billion over 20 years. If the Astros and CSN had agreed to a deal, Crane indicated that the majority of that money would have been used for players' salaries.
Crane said when a deal is struck he expects spend as much as the Rangers do on payroll. That's a significant statement considering their payroll was more than $115 million this season.
Houston lost its final 15 games to end with a franchise-worst 111 losses in 2013. Crane expects the Astros to be considerably better next season and reiterated the importance of reaching a media rights deal to the team's future success.
"I think we've hit bottom and I think you'll see us make some adjustments on the field," he said. "Bottom line, we just have to hang in there and cut the best possible deal we can for the long term good of the franchise, which equates to the product we can put on the field, which equates to winning ball games and satisfying our fans and getting the place filled up again."