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Area Baseball Network Must Form Quickly

Comcast has not revealed its Washington plans.

"While we pride ourselves on providing quality sports programming for our customers," Jack Williams, president of Comcast SportsNet, said in a statement, "the decision to bring the team here has just been finalized and we have not yet held any discussions regarding carriage of the new team's games."

Comcast's contract to broadcast Orioles games expires after the 2006 season, leaving the team free to join a regional sports network created for the Expos. Such a network would likely need Comcast's participation, given the cable company's dominance in the Washington area.

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"Comcast controls a lot of subscribers" in the Expos-Orioles market, Berke said. "In order to make the network successful, you have to have Comcast as a major distribution partner."

The other major cable providers in the Washington area are Cox Communications Inc. and Starpower Communications LLC, both of which said they would like to broadcast next year's Expos games.

Broadcaster-owned regional sports networks have been the standard in the industry. When the NBA moved the Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans in 2002, the city worked with Cox, that city's largest cable provider, to build a regional sports network.

But team-owned networks are the new trend, Berke said; about 25 major league teams now run their own network. In Dallas, the Cowboys put together a channel that shows preseason games, press conferences with head coach Bill Parcells and other fare, but no regular-season Cowboys games, because the NFL controls those rights.

If owned by the team, the networks typically charge cable companies, such as Comcast and Cox, about $1.20 per subscriber per month, Berke said. That cost is passed along to the cable subscriber. The cost of sports programming has been a thorny issue between teams, and sports channels and cable operators. Last year, Cox balked at ESPN's proposed price hike to more than $2 per subscriber before the sides eventually settled.

The Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, considered the gold standard of team-owned networks, is worth $1.2 billion, said Berke, one of the co-authors of YES's original business plan.

If the regional network is owned by an entity other than the cable company, it can become a source of tension with the local cable provider.

In Minnesota earlier this year, the Twins owners started their own regional sports network, called Victory One Sports, but Time Warner and other cable operators refused to carry it, saying the Twins were charging too much -- dooming the venture and keeping Twins games off the air for a time last spring, angering fans. The Twins pulled the plug on the nascent network and re-upped with Fox's regional sports network in May.

Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.

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