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Area Baseball Network Must Form Quickly

Giant Comcast Likely to Have Significant Say in an Expos-Orioles Channel

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page A14

One of the key elements that enabled Washington to land the Montreal Expos -- the creation of a regional sports network that would televise Expos and Baltimore Orioles games and funnel most of the revenue to Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos -- does not exist yet.

None of the principals has disclosed what such a network would look like, even though it must be up and running in time to broadcast Expos spring training games in March. During a conference call yesterday, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said the terms of the deal "would remain between us."

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Angelos's cut is likely to be healthy: The Orioles would receive the majority of the new network's revenue, according to sources familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Typical regional sports networks return a profit margin of 30 to 40 percent annually on revenues in the tens of millions of dollars, industry experts said.

Regional sports networks are usually owned either by cable companies and broadcasters or by the teams themselves, such as the Dallas Cowboys, which just launched its own network.

The networks often feature a year-round roster of professional and college sports and tend to be anchored by a Major League Baseball franchise, which provides programming for half the year. In the Washington area, Comcast Corp. controls the rights to the Capitals and Wizards (each through 2012), strengthening its hand in any negotiations to establish a network for the city's new baseball team, industry analysts said.

The arrangements can be lucrative. The teams make money by either selling their broadcast rights to a cable company or network or by running the network itself and charging the cable company a fee to carry the games. The broadcasters and cable companies make money from subscription fees and advertising sold on the regional network.

The Orioles, for example, sold the rights to Comcast to show 87 games this season -- and the rest to local stations, such as WDCA-TV. Such rights are expensive. Fox Sports Net pays the Seattle Mariners $30 million per year to broadcast the team's games, said Lee Berke, who has advised several teams on the creation of regional sports networks.

Comcast -- the cable industry's largest company with 22 million customers, including about 2 million in the Washington area -- already has Comcast SportsNet channels in the Washington-Baltimore region. It also runs networks in its home city of Philadelphia and one set to be launched in Chicago on Friday.

Some industry experts said what may emerge in the Washington area is a hybrid network that would be part-owned by the teams and part by Comcast, a model similar to the one in place in Chicago. That network was created by Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox.

Reinsdorf is the head of Major League Baseball's relocation committee, which chose Washington for the Expos. Reinsdorf also is co-owner with Comcast in the company's new SportsNet Chicago, which will show 100 of Reinsdorf's White Sox games and 48 of his Bulls games.

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