SBJ/April 16 - 22, 2007/This Weeks News

With Extra Innings deals done, quest for sign-ups in full swing

Major League Baseball’s Extra Innings saga has moved from negotiations, dueling press releases and congressional hearings to the simpler operational logistics of customer sign-ups, but not without an angry parting shot from satellite company EchoStar Communications.

The DBS operator posted a lengthy message on its Dish Network Web site during the recent holiday weekend, accusing MLB of making “blatantly anti-consumer” demands and “refusing to budge” in negotiations.

MLB declined to respond to the comments, but not surprisingly, industry sources now describe Extra Innings talks between MLB and Dish as dormant.

Baseball on April 4 reached a deal with In Demand to get carriage for both the Extra Innings out-of-market package and planned MLB Channel. The deal follows an accord between MLB and DirecTV for the same programming and involved a 20 percent price cut in carriage fees to MLB and a realignment of equity in the forthcoming channel. DirecTV and In Demand now each hold 16 percent in the channel, which is planned to launch in 2009.

The days after that cable deal brought a flurry of activity. MLB Advanced Media, which produces and markets the MLB.TV online out-of-market package, extended a free five-day trial from just the first week of the season to all of April. MLBAM, DirecTV and In Demand have heightened their marketing efforts as well, including full-page ads in national newspapers.

DirecTV stretched its early bird price cut for Extra Innings to the end of the month. The three operators with stakes in In Demand — Comcast, Time Warner and Cox — rolled out a free preview to subscribers April 4 that was due to expire yesterday.

All other MSOs will need to negotiate with MLB before they can take Extra Innings feeds from In Demand. To that end, baseball is talking with several cable operators.

Despite the In Demand deal, cable operators remain aggressive in promoting rebate offers for MLB.TV to their customers, a strategy originally devised when DirecTV held the Extra Innings package exclusively. Cablevision, which currently does not have a deal for Extra Innings, has even called its customers who purchased Extra Innings last year by phone, offering a $90 rebate on their cable bill if they purchase MLB.TV.

MLB executives, according to industry sources, are not pleased with cable’s unauthorized efforts to use MLBAM product to retain customers. Since the offers involve cable operators simply giving their own customers cash or credit on their bills, however, and do not use MLB logos, baseball’s options to fight the rebates are limited.

Amid the sign-up push, MLB and MLBAM have not brought a co-marketing plan to market, as originally planned.

“We’re always open-minded to working with all of our partners, but right now, we’re still in the midst of our initial sign-ups,” said Bob Bowman, MLBAM chief executive.

Bowman said he expects to sell more than 400,000 subscriptions to MLB.TV this season, up from 300,000 people registered last season.

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