Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baseball may be a bit late in the game in forming its own cable channel, but it’s clear that the soon-to-be-launched MLB Network will get off to a much better start than its NFL counterpart.

The all-baseball network, which debuts Jan. 1, announced this week it has reached an agreement with Verizon FiOS, one of the fastest-growing cable providers in the country. With deals already in place with DirecTV, Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner, the MLB Network expects to have the largest initial distribution of any cable network in history — more than 50 million households.

Meanwhile, the NFL Network has spent a considerable amount of time in its first few years battling with cable companies and lawmakers over its distribution. While the NFL Network reaches 43 million homes in its fourth year of existence, major cable providers either have refused to carry the network or, like Comcast, placed it in a special entertainment and sports tier. With millions of fans shut out of seeing the network’s eight regular-season games, some members of Congress have voiced concerns about the possibility of the league abandoning its long-standing practice of airing games on free television.

“It is clear that several big cable companies continue to turn a deaf ear to football fans, blocking or charging extra for our most popular programming on TV,” NFL Network president Steve Bornstein said in an op-ed piece sent to media outlets this week. “We in the NFL have been trying without success for months to negotiate with these companies for broader coverage.”

Bornstein’s letter resembles another one he wrote two years ago.

MLB Network officials, meanwhile, aren’t writing desperate letters and have stayed clear of Congress.

“To be able to not focus on those battles day in and day out and focus on the programming and production and the other aspects of the business is a great advantage,” MLB Network president and CEO Tony Petitti said. “It’s not that we don’t want to grow our distribution. We’re obviously trying to do that every day as well. But this give us a good head start and really changes the way this business is being run.”

Petitti also said the strong early distribution should keep the network on track even as ad sales decline because of the economic downturn.

The MLB Network on Wednesday announced the hiring of several well-known broadcasters and analysts, including former Fox Sports host Matt Vasgersian, former New England Sports Network reporter Hazel Mae and former major leaguers Harold Reynolds and Al Leiter. The network expects to have 1,400 hours of live programming in its first year, including at least six hours of highlights and analysis each evening during the baseball season. Eventually, it will show live and archived games, plus special “hot stove” programming during the offseason.

Baseball faced criticism with some of the stances it took when trying to get the major cable companies on board last year. In essence, it threatened to allow DirecTV to hold the exclusive rights to the league’s out-of-market games package if cable companies Cox, Comcast and Time Warner didn’t agree to carry the new network on a widely distributed tier. Fans were irate, but the cable networks gave in after negotiating a minority ownership share of the network. By comparison, the NFL has not offered an ownership share of its network to any cable networks.

To be clear, the NFL Network has strong ratings among households that receive the network. And while there have been growing pains with its game coverage - the network replaced play-by-play man Bryant Gumbel with veteran Giants broadcaster Bob Papa - its studio shows and coverage of the NFL Draft compare in quality to those at ESPN. It’s also fair to note that the NFL Network’s initial distribution ranked among the best in cable history in 2003. It just hasn’t gained much traction with cable operators since.

Over time, the NFL Network may prove the more profitable of the two networks because football has usurped baseball as America’s most popular sport. But in the early going, it’s all about distribution. And for now, baseball’s new venture has the edge.

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