- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

A 24-hour cable channel devoted to baseball finally will begin to see the light of day this week, assuming major league owners vote as expected and approve funding for the venture.

MLB’s own TV channel — matching similar in-house outlets like the NFL Network, NBA TV, Speed Channel and the Golf Channel — has been in the works for nearly two years amid steady internal retooling. But the network is set to reach households sometime during the 2005 season, and the timing could hardly be better.

After more than a decade of labor rancor and ugly feelings toward the sport, MLB is enjoying a striking revival this season, one in which competitive pennant races are prevalent, attendance and TV ratings are up and corporate sponsors are gladly spending tens of millions to connect themselves to baseball. In short, MLB at last has a modicum of leverage to flex its muscles in the marketplace.

MLB executives are keeping most of the pertinent details for the TV venture under wraps until after Thursday’s vote during owners meetings in Philadelphia. But a few things are known: the initial programming almost certainly will not center on regular-season games and instead will resemble the NFL Network’s mix of game replays, news and analysis, archival footage, behind-the-scenes features and preseason games. A significant fantasy league component is expected as well.

Many of these elements already are in place on MLB.com, baseball’s highly successful and profitable Web site. And like MLB.com, startup costs will extend deep into eight figures and could approach $100million.

“We have now developed a final plan [for the TV network] and are ready to go,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president for business. “The request for the owners is to fund and move forward. We have done an enormous amount of due diligence on the state of the pay TV universe.”

Brosnan said the network is not designed to cannibalize its national TV partners, Fox, ESPN and Turner, and those networks in turn have not generated any protests to the effort.

While baseball certainly should have its own cable network like its rival leagues, that due diligence should show the road to television riches is anything but easy or short. NBA TV, now 5 years old, is available in 66million U.S. homes through carriage agreements with all of the major cable players, as well as DirecTV. Foreign distribution this year surpasses three dozen countries. But the channel’s actual domestic reach is far smaller because most cable operators have placed it on more limited digital sports tiers.

The NFL Network is steadfastly insisting on wider placement and inclusion on basic cable or digital basic tiers. But it can tell a somewhat similar story. Despite an impressive depth of programming less than a year into its existence, the channel is in only 22million homes and is still seeking deals with top-tier cable operators like Comcast, Time Warner and Cox.

MLB, at least in the short term, has no hope of being able to replicate the NFL’s tough stance on carriage. Even with baseball’s renewed strength, it does not possess an ultimate carrot like football does with the Sunday Ticket out-of-market game package that could hit cable TV in 2006. It is also important to remember that MLB owners seemingly have been ready to start their network several times in the past, only to get cold feet and table the issue.

While creating a network is not without risk, it is becoming abundantly clear within the sports industry that even the ever-expanding ESPN monolith is not large enough to blanket any league and that fan thirst for new information is relentless.

“We’re pleased with where we are now,” said Ed Desser, president of NBA Television and New Media. “We’re now to a point where [NBA TV] is a must-have within the game, and it’s a great thing to have an asset where there is no higher calling but to serve the fan. We have the ability to cover every piece of NBA news to its full degree. It’s actually sort of remarkable that after all these years of cable, it’s only now that we’re reaching a point where full-time league channels are truly a staple. With all the other specific lifestyle channels out there, you’d think this would have happened sooner.”

If baseball continues to languish insufferably into another year of finding a new home for the woebegone Montreal Expos, here’s another easy programming suggestion: live broadcasts of relocation committee meetings.

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