SBJ/20080804/Media

MLB Network’s Harlem plans an unnecessary distraction

Back in January, MLB announced plans to build a 21-story office building in Harlem that would be the home for the MLB Network.

In the ensuing seven months, credit markets have dried up and build-out plans have been scaled back to 14 stories.

MLB executives still want to pursue the Harlem development. But I don’t think they should even bother. Why?

It doesn’t make financial sense. It won’t help out the broadcast operations. And it could create an unnecessary distraction when the network should be focused on launching in five months.

Right now, the best-case scenario has MLB Network moving into Harlem by the start of the 2011 season. But that’s only if the property’s developer, Vornado Realty Trust, starts construction soon. It originally was supposed to start last spring, but reportedly ran into financing troubles that delayed it.

For at least the next two years, the network will be operating out of MSNBC’s former studio in Secaucus, N.J., where it is spending a lot of money — tens of millions of dollars, some industry sources suggest — to make those studios ready for HD.

Financing hurdles have shrunk
the original 21-story plan
(in rendering above) to 14.

“Because we’re going to be in Secaucus for two years, we decided that we need to make that a full-on high-def facility,” said MLB Network President and CEO Tony Petitti.

Why would MLB spend that kind of money in Secaucus, only to turn around and build the same studio 16 miles away? What possible benefit could MLB get from having such a studio in Harlem, rather than Secaucus?

The truth is that plenty of other networks have discovered they are not hindered by studios that are far from major media markets. They get the same caliber of guests and game analysts, plus, they get much cheaper rent.

YES Network’s production house is in Stamford, Conn., 25 miles from Yankee Stadium. NESN is based in Watertown, Mass., several miles from Fenway Park.

ESPN is another good example. Last year, when it made the decision to move ESPN2’s morning show “Cold Pizza” from Manhattan to Bristol, executives worried that they wouldn’t be able to get the same level of guests to Connecticut.

“We found that they all still make the ride up to Bristol to be on ‘First Take,’” said Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and managing editor of studio production. “I don’t see any disadvantage to being in Bristol.”

I understand why MLB likes Harlem. I recognize the attraction of being a part of the neighborhood around 125th Street and Park Avenue, especially given the issues baseball has had in attracting African-American fans.

MLB executives still want to move to Harlem. And New York City would love to have baseball set up shop in the city, rather than seeing it move to New Jersey.

The main question is how much of a financial incentive can the city give MLB Network, especially considering the faltering economy?

Just before the All-Star Game, Vornado sent a lease to MLB that detailed the scaled-down project. MLB is expected to make a final decision soon.

“We’re going to make a decision shortly about whether Harlem is viable for us,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president. “Everybody’s great preference would be to be there. But it’s not going to be to the detriment of Tony’s operation, or his people. Or the picture that ends up on the television set.”

STAR SEARCH: MLB executives still aren’t talking about talent acquisitions for the channel. But industry sources have identified two on-air personalities whom they expect to be with the channel when it launches Jan. 1. One is Harold Reynolds, who now has a role as an on-screen analyst with MLB Advanced Media. The other is Hazel Mae, the former NESN anchor who left the channel in June.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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