SBJ/July 18 - 24, 2005/Media

ESPN near wide-ranging MLBAM deal

ESPN is close to announcing an eight-year deal with MLB Advanced Media for various multimedia rights, sources say, including rights to highlights for ESPN broadband and, most important, a marketing partnership around MLB.TV and the MLB “All Access” product.

That includes the out-of-market game package, sold on a daily, monthly and seasonlong basis.

ESPN had hoped at one time to do an all-encompassing deal with MLB that would include multimedia rights as well as a renewal of its primary television package. But anyone who has ever tried to do a deal with MLBAM and MLB proper can attest that the two work separately — quite separately. So while the television talks are back on track after hitting a few snags, sources say, the multimedia deal is moving toward completion on its own.

The deal will include most of the rights previously held by Microsoft and MSN.com, which opted out of its deal with MLBAM just before the season started, halfway through a two-year deal. ESPN already has picked up many of those rights on an interim basis and has been actively marketing the MLB.TV options on espn.com all season. But this deal will lock in those rights on a multiyear basis, with ESPN paying a rights fee in the $15 million to $20 million per year range, not far off what Microsoft was paying, sources say.

ESPN, like MSN before it, will have rights to sell its own advertising on the streaming video product, overlaying ads from regional sports networks and local broadcasters. Not really set up to sell traditional television advertising, MSN never exploited those rights. But ESPN has every intention of doing so, a move that will surely rile Fox Sports Net, which has local rights to most MLB teams. The Internet streams are blacked out in local markets, protecting Fox on some level, but no one likes to have their ads replaced.

ESPN is the third company to acquire video streaming rights for mlb.com. RealNetworks was the exclusive provider for mlb.com from 2001 to 2003, and later sued MLBAM for alleged breach of contract when MLB signed with Microsoft. That suit has since been settled.

METS TO TAKE OVER SPACE: The New York Mets’ new regional sports network is negotiating a lease to take over CNN’s street-level studio at Sixth Avenue and 51st Street in Manhattan, currently home of “American Morning” with Soledad and Miles O’Brien. The windowed studio went live in September 2002, riding a trend in the morning news business of studios being situated on busy urban streets to have a more dynamic background. This studio features views of Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center, quintessential New York landmarks that will surely help the Mets network brand itself as a hometown player.

The Mets network, jointly owned by the club, Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., has been quiet as it prepares for its spring 2006 launch. But the one public thing the network’s CEO Jon Litner has said is he wants the network to be a leader in local sports news, something the fancy studio surely underscores. Among the three other New York regional sports networks — MSG Network, Fox Sports Net New York and the YES Network — only MSG has a studio-based sports news show.

WAITING ON AL: Everyone is waiting on Al Michaels. Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Mike Patrick, Marv Albert … anyone who might end up in either the Sunday or “Monday Night Football” announcing booth in 2006 is waiting on Michaels to weigh offers from both NBC and ESPN and come to some sort of decision. Only then, network sources say, will anything happen regarding other talent.

Al Michaels’ decision will help dictate the futures of several NFL announcers. He is considering offers from NBC and ESPN.
Michaels received an offer from NBC Universal Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol several weeks ago that industry insiders estimate to be worth about $3 million a year, $1 million less than he was making for “Monday Night Football.” But there’s been no resolution there. ESPN also has told Michaels that there is a spot for him in the “Monday Night Football” booth if he wants it.

Until Michaels makes a decision, everything else is on hold. ESPN’s current Sunday night team of Theismann, Maguire and Patrick, well-respected among critics and fans, probably won’t remain intact because ESPN wants to make the point to viewers that Monday night is a step up from the Sunday package. Adding marquee talent like Michaels is an easy way to do that.

If Michaels stays with the Walt Disney Co. and goes to ESPN, that could open the door for Theismann and/or Maguire to join him in the booth. But if Michaels joins current partner John Madden at NBC on Sunday nights next year, or just rebuffs ESPN and cable, ESPN will likely bring in some fresh blood on either the play-by-play or color side.

Marv Albert is one name floating around to join Madden if Michaels turns down Ebersol’s offer.

While it’s been no secret that Ebersol covets Michaels, those close to Ebersol say he’s a believer that the color man, not the play-by-play guy, makes all the difference. That’s why he went after Madden first and probably won’t throw Michaels all the plums he was getting at ABC, such as use of a private jet.

Ebersol could make the Olympics part of the package with Michaels, but Michaels is under contract with ABC through next basketball season, something that probably would keep him from starting with NBC as soon as the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in February.

Meanwhile, half of NBC’s studio team appears set, with Cris Collinsworth jumping from Fox to NBC. Most expect Bob Costas to join him as a co-host.

Andy Bernstein can be reached at abernstein@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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