- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

To get a glimpse of how much the local sports scene has changed in 18 months, consider the landscape when Comcast Corp. agreed to buy Bethesda-based Home Team Sports from Viacom Inc. in July 2000.
Cal Ripken was still a Baltimore Oriole. Michael Jordan was scouting talent for the Washington Wizards instead of shooting jumpers. Jaromir Jagr was a Pittsburgh Penguin. Norv Turner was coaching the Washington Redskins. Maryland football was its usual mediocre self, and Gary Williams' basketball Terrapins couldn't win the big one.
Comcast closed on the HTS purchase a year ago and rebranded the network as Comcast SportsNet (CSN) in April 2001. In the nine months since, the operation has benefited from and also endured a series of operational, industry and local team changes probably unseen by any other regional sports network in recent memory.
"A pretty insightful piece of timing, huh?" said CSN president David Nevins of the network's arrival. "We felt very strongly this was a very good sports market, and we've been more than proven right."
In the frenetic course of one summer, fall and winter, Comcast was blessed with the arrivals of Jordan and Jagr, the Ripken farewell tour, Ralph Friedgen leading Maryland football to the Orange Bowl, Darrell Green retiring and then unretiring, and Steve Spurrier taking the helm of the Redskins.
Predictably, the network benefited strongly from all the news, both in ratings and ad sales, and still does. Local Wizards ratings are up more than 500 percent from last season's 19-63 debacle, and viewership marks from Jagr's still erratic Capitals are doubling those from last year. And ad revenues to date have topped those from the end of the HTS era, fueled in part by higher rates, but still a laudable feat given the horrific state of the current advertising market.
Bumps in the road and retooling, however, continue to happen as CSN evolves from HTS' role as a network showing local games to a fully fledged sports operation.
"SpotLIGHT," the hour-long live roundtable show airing at 6 p.m., has been downsized to a straight half hour of sports news at 6:30 because costs ran high and potential guests often were reluctant to drive to CSN's Bethesda studios in rush hour.
Homerism among many of the game announcers continues to run counter to its more by-the-book news side. And Fox Sports Net's new Sunday night ACC basketball package, airing locally on CSN, has been a ratings boon but a significant scheduling frustration for ACC coaches.
"I think we've done a good job so far, but obviously, we haven't perfected our model," Nevins said. "This is a work in progress. We still want to get better."
A key change for CSN was securing better working relationships with the teams it airs and introducing them to the network's dual role as media outlet and business partner. Despite a vested financial interest to work together, sparring matches between regional sports networks and local teams are actually quite common, owing largely to battles over player access, prime time slots and the tone of coverage.
Here in Washington, early meetings between Caps owner Ted Leonsis and HTS executives over game scheduling sometimes ended angrily. Leonsis actually walked out of one session when HTS refused to boost the number of games to be aired in the 2000-01 season.
But CSN, which has its corporate parent based in Philadelphia and is well accustomed to the raw emotions of that city, worked quickly with local teams to broker some peace. Of course, it didn't hurt when the Caps, for one, got all 82 regular season games on TV this season.
"Comcast has done every single thing they committed to us, post sale. They have done their best to broadcast every game, and are working hard at upgrading production values," said Leonsis, who considered bidding for HTS before Comcast jumped into the fray. "I have found them to be committed and fair partners."
The network's foremost future hurdles involve scheduling. The NBA's new national TV deal with Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner could mean some additional blackouts of Wizards games on CSN just when the team is awakening from a unbearably long slumber.
And then there's the Washington baseball question. With assumptions now running rampant that an area team will exist by next year, how will its 162-game schedule fit on local TV with that of the Baltimore Orioles?
Nevins said a Washington baseball team and the Orioles could successfully coexist under the CSN umbrella. But how that would be possible without upsetting the Orioles during the five years left on their contract with CSN remains uncertain. Former HTS executives talked loosely for years of starting a second network when a Washington team arrived. But the still uneasy economics of TV sports and CSN's already meager dayside programming leaves that plan under some question.
"I would consider us interested bystanders with regards to baseball in D.C.," Nevins said. "Whatever we do or don't do will not have any bearing whether or not baseball comes to Washington. But should a team come, obviously we would be very interested in covering the team, including acquiring the broadcast rights. How that all fits in together with everything else is something we frankly haven't spent a lot of time with. It would be a challenge, but a challenge I think we could handle."

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