Baseball and ESPN kissed and made up this week in one of the sweetest reconciliations imaginable. Both sides kept their dignity and, far more important, both got what they needed the most.
For ESPN, losing baseball would have been unthinkable, especially after NASCAR--a staple of its programming for so many years--jumped ship to forge new relationships with Fox and NBC, and the NCAA basketball tournament stayed with CBS.
For baseball, peeved with ESPN's shift of Sunday night games in September to ESPN2 in favor of NFL games, the decision to avoid a courtroom confrontation also made perfect sense.
ESPN increased the number of hours baseball will fill on its various networks from 500 to 800 a year. Baseball essentially tripled its yearly rights package with an $815 million contract through 2005.
There were several key players in resolving this dispute, not the least of whom was U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who was presiding over a case scheduled to go to trial only hours before the settlement was announced. According to sources, he essentially told both sides they would be far wiser to settle the dispute than risk a jury trial that could go either way.
ESPN President George Bodenheimer also kept the lines of communication open with baseball, despite what was publicly perceived as an irreconcilable spat. Privately, Bodenheimer was in constant communication with Commissioner Bud Selig and representatives from his office, and neither side ever issued a drop-dead ultimatum.
Now, both have new life. Baseball gets a much-needed infusion of cash, several new shows and lots more exposure on ESPN, ESPN2 and Classic/ESPN.
The network gets to keep a property that it simply could not afford to lose, no matter what the price. According to Bodenheimer, ESPN (with 77 million homes) still will turn a profit, and ESPN2 will benefit greatly from 44 more games a year that likely will allow the network to add millions more subscribers to its current base of 67 million.
One ESPN official said: "Everyone wins here--us, baseball and the people at home." The losers? Advertisers who will pay higher rates to peddle their products so ESPN can make a buck, too.
As Wizards Fall, Ratings Rise
Despite yet another dreadful start by the Washington Wizards, their ratings on HTS are up by about 20 percent over their final rating number for the 1998-99 season after 15 games on the cable network.
On HTS, the Wizards are averaging a 1.2 rating, compared with 1.0 for the 1998-99 season. The team's numbers are down on WBDC-TV-50, with three games this year averaging a 1.8 rating, compared with last season's average of 2.2.
The Washington Capitals, still struggling around the .500 mark, have stayed the same on HTS, with a .6 rating for 16 games so far--the number the team averaged last season. On Channel 50, with only three October games aired, the numbers have dropped from a .9 rating for the 1998-99 season to a .7 this year.
"People are not focused on the Caps or Wizards yet," said Channel 50 General Manager Mike Nurse, now negotiating with rights-holder HTS on a new multiyear contract to be the over-the-air (as opposed to cable) carrier for both teams. "And nothing helps ratings like winning. It still works for us, but it is frustrating because there is so much upside potential for ratings and the promotional tie-in.
"Broadcasting sports on local TV is like putting a chip down in Las Vegas. If the team is winning, you're in the chips. If it's losing, you're [in trouble]."
HTS, meantime, is considering adding a second cable channel to handle Orioles, Wizards and Capitals games it can't broadcast because of scheduling conflicts. An HTS spokesman said nothing was imminent, but that it is an option being discussed.
Redskins Have the Numbers
Redskins ratings continue to soar, up 20 percent from last season--an average of 28.7 and a 54 share of the audience through 12 games compared with a 23.9 rating and 47 share for the entire 1998 season.
With the thrill-or-spill-a-minute team still very much in the playoff race, Brad Dancer, director of research for WTTG-TV-5, said he believes the team could exceed the 1995 season--Fox's first airing pro football--when the Redskins averaged a 30.6 rating despite going 3-13.
"These numbers are fantastic," Dancer said. "It's happening because this is a team that every week, you're not sure what you'll get, but it's always exciting. Now with them in the playoff hunt the next four games, it should go even higher."
Barkley in the Booth
The end of Charles Barkley's basketball career with a knee injury suffered Wednesday night should mark the beginning of a promising broadcast career. Both NBC and Turner are interested in adding Barkley to their NBA coverage teams, as quickly as possible.
Turner is telling Barkley it's willing to put him on a game a week as the third man in the broadcast team for the rest of the season and would alternate him with its groups of announcers for more variety. NBC, with only weekend coverage, might prove more constricting to the loquacious (and often outrageous) Barkley, who probably will make a choice in the next week.