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NETWORKS WIN WITH NEW BASEBALL CONTRACT; FANS LOSE

NETWORKS WIN WITH NEW BASEBALL CONTRACT; FANS LOSE

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IT ISN'T difficult to determine the winners and losers in the proposed major league baseball TV contract.

If the contract is approved by baseball's ornery owners and the players' union, the networks and possibly radio will be the winners.

The losers? The fans and the NFL.

It's too early to tell how the owners will fare. They are gambling their game that the nation's economy can make a comeback in 1994, when this plan begins.

For the first time, the networks will not pay an upfront rights fee to Major League Baseball, which received a record $1.06 billion from CBS for a four-year national package that started in 1990. Instead, Major League Baseball, NBC and ABC have entered into a partnership in which they will sell the advertising for the games together, with MLB reaping the lion's share (as much as 90 percent the first year) of the revenue. The owners -- who dismissed a last-minute CBS offer Thursday -- will win only if advertising revenue increases.

ABC and NBC are winners because they don't have to pay anything up front and baseball changed its structure without forcing the network entertainment divisions to relinquish too much time. They can also use the baseball deal in their coming arguments with the National Football League. But that is getting ahead of the story.

They also reduced their inventory of post-season games. The highly-rated All-Star Game and the World Series are the primary reasons the networks want baseball. The league championships have considerably less value.

In the past, all league championship series games -- up to a possible total of 14 -- were broadcast. Under the new contract, the leagues will run their playoff games concurrently -- for a total of 12 time slots. This will allow for switches, cut-ins and perhaps even for a network to dump a 13-0 ratings loser for a more competitive game.

The only divergence from this plan is a proposal to stagger the starts of any possible Games Six and Seven so the end of both the A.L. and N.L. games could be seen. This is a wise move. But it would have been wiser to carry seventh games on different nights.

The primary reason the games are being regionalized is because the networks didn't want to increase the number of games in prime time. To do so would disrupt entertainment schedules longer and push the baseball season into the November sweeps. However, baseball is banking on regional playoff coverage drawing higher ratings than national coverage, increasing advertising revenue.

As it stands, the network that carries the World Series and the first round of the playoffs will get a maximum of 12 post-season dates in prime time -- and a possible seven of them are highly-rated World Series games.

The network with the All-Star Game and the league championships has a possible seven lower-rated post-season dates in prime time. That's down from the nine carried last year -- some were carried in the daytime -- by CBS when all league championship games were on TV.

CBS also is a winner because by losing baseball -- on which the network lost $500 million over four years -- it can now focus on buying less expensive entertainment counterprogramming geared to female viewers. An average hour of prime time costs $1-$1.5 million to make and can be repeated. CBS paid two to three times that for a post-season hour of baseball, which can't be repeated.

CBS overpaid for the baseball deal when it was a desperate No. 3 in prime time, needed to show affiliates it was still a major network player and wanted the promotional power that the World Series offers to the prime-time schedule. Now No. 1, it doesn't need baseball.

NBC is in CBS' old position -- No. 3 and in need of impressing its affiliates.

Radio is also a winner because it may have something TV won't have. Presumably more playoff games may be available on radio than are available on TV. A local radio outlet would especially benefit if it could carry a different game than is carried by a local TV station.

Now on to the losers. The first thing the fans lose is the chance to see every playoff game, as they could before.

Fans also won't see a Saturday Game of the Week because ABC and NBC say viewers have spoken by ignoring CBS' inconsistent package. That's an unfair interpretation. CBS lost interest in the format before the fans did, reducing the number of telecasts from the 26 shown by NBC to 16. It would have been worth it to try a regular game-of-the-week in 1994 to see if viewers could be recaptured.

Under the new TV plan, the network would carry 12 prime-time games -- one a week for the final three months of the season. In addition, the number of games on ESPN -- or whichever cable channel picks up the games -- will be cut in half.

Why is the NFL, which foolishly turned down an offer to extend its contract at reduced but steady rights fees for 1993 and a few years beyond, a loser?

In accepting the networks' cry of poverty and shifting the majority of the risk to the sport, baseball has become the third professional sport -- following the NBA and the NHL -- to treat the networks as a partner who deserves to make money, too.

The NFL, which had baseball's huge contract from CBS to thank for its inflated last contract, now can blame baseball if its rights fees fall significantly just when free agency is driving up salaries.

The NFL has by far the best ratings in all of sports and it also can play the Fox Network and HBO off against the networks to drive up the price.

But this baseball deal makes it clear that the networks aren't willing to lose money on sports anymore and that they are planning to tackle the NFL's misguided conceit next.

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