SBJ/January 23 - 29, 2006/Other News

MLB hoping Cuba can play in WBC

The news blackout of business announcements related to the upcoming World Baseball Classic can be boiled down to one word: Cuba.

Both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are seeking to have the U.S. Treasury Department reverse a December ruling that barred Cuba, largely on economic grounds, from participating in the WBC. The reapplication earmarks Cuba’s share of WBC revenue for charity, most likely for Hurricane Katrina relief.

MLB executives said they are “guardedly optimistic” for a positive response in the coming days.

While the Cuba issue remains unresolved, an extensive series of WBC media and sponsorship deals remains under tight wraps. Among them are a much-discussed TV package with ESPN, a deal created after Fox passed on the WBC rights, and high-profile sponsorship deals with key MLB partners Taco Bell and MasterCard.

“That’s the issue in total. Without question,” MLB President Bob DuPuy said. “Until we get Cuba completely done, we’re not making any business announcements. But there are obviously many deals done and ready.”

Castellini approved:
Cincinnati-area produce distributor Robert Castellini became baseball’s third new owner in the last year as his purchase of a controlling interest of the Reds received unanimous approval last week from MLB owners during their meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. The time needed to take the owners vote on Castellini, whose deal values the Reds at $270 million, was less than five minutes.

Castellini, 64, and minority partners Thomas and W. Joseph Williams Jr. were former shareholders of the St. Louis Cardinals and will sell that equity back to Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. before closing on the Reds transaction. The Williamses are part of the family that owned the Reds during their 1970s glory days and sold the club to Marge Schott in 1984. Castellini also formerly was an investor in the Texas Rangers.

“The Reds are a very important part of our community, and it’s very rare these things come up for sale,” Castellini said. “It was tough leaving [the Cardinals], but we’re coming into this with a tremendous amount of energy and passion.”

Castellini, joining recent ownership shifts in Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles and Anaheim before that, continues a significant turnover in baseball’s leadership ranks. Further change is expected, as the Washington Nationals and Minnesota Twins are for sale, and Time Warner is actively considering a sale of the Atlanta Braves.

As for Washington, Selig stopped short of saying he’s made his ownership choice for the MLB-controlled club, but only barely. The stadium lease dispute between MLB and the District of Columbia is now in mediation. If that matter is resolved in the next few weeks with a positive D.C. Council vote on the lease, as is the hope on both sides, MLB is prepared to move quickly on the Nationals.

“I’ve given this quite a lot of thought, and I’ve pretty much come to a conclusion on each group,” Selig said.

The leading suitors for the Nationals are a team of local businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, Maryland developers Mark and Ted Lerner, and Indianapolis communications executive Jeffrey Smulyan.

MASN-Comcast deal not imminent:
One of the hottest and most persistent rumors within baseball and Mid-Atlantic media circles in recent weeks has Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos selling part of his majority stake of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network to legal combatant Comcast Corp., which is refusing to carry the fledgling network on its cable systems.

The deal would serve to end a bitter dispute that has waged for nearly a year, but both sides insist the talk is without foundation. Rather, Angelos said he recently forwarded a new carriage proposal to Comcast executives and is making plans to start 24-hour programming for MASN in July. The network currently carries Washington Nationals games on DirecTV and several small cable operations, and Angelos plans to shift local Baltimore Orioles telecasts to the network in 2007.

“I’ve heard that rumor, too, but it’s not happening,” Angelos said. “We’ve sent them a new proposal to get on their distribution system and hope to hear back from them soon. But we’re not selling equity. That’s our asset.”

Baseball Channel on hold — again:
The oft-sliding timetable for the forthcoming Baseball Channel has moved again, this time to an indefinite date. MLB executives continue to wait for the rest of the TV picture to clarify before proceeding, but that situation is now even more muddled as Fox let the exclusive negotiating window for a new broadcast package lapse with the arrival of the new year. Fox’s six-year, $2.5 billion pact expires after the 2006 season, and MLB recently began talking to other networks, including NBC.

As a result, the previous plan of starting the in-house TV operation in time for Opening Day is not happening.

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