SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/Media

MLB wild card TV rights up for grabs

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Major League Baseball is planning to take television rights to its new wild card playoff games to the open market this week, according to several sources.

An exclusive negotiating window with Turner Sports was scheduled to end last Saturday without a deal, those sources said. That will enable the league to engage ESPN and Fox Sports in negotiations for the one-game wild card playoff in each league.

Sources also say that the league is seriously considering carrying the games on its own MLB Network.

At last month’s World Congress of Sports, MLB’s executive vice president of business, Tim Brosnan, spoke of the need to increase MLB Network’s distribution to 90 million homes. It’s now in 68 million homes, making it the most widely distributed league-owned cable channel.

On the event’s opening panel, Brosnan said the league will be looking to place “important” games on the channel to persuade cable operators to give it better carriage. When asked whether he was referring to playoff games, Brosnan said, “I didn’t say that.” But the wild card games could be the types of “important” games to which Brosnan was referring.

Early last month, MLB announced a playoff expansion to include two wild card teams from each league. The teams will play a one-game elimination game to advance to the Division Series. The wild card games are scheduled for Oct. 5, two days after the conclusion of the regular season. One set of Division Series starts Oct. 6; the other will start the following day, Oct. 7.

It’s not known what type of rights fee MLB can get from these added games. The league wants to see whether competition from the open market can push up the price for what should be an appealing and highly rated one-game playoff.

Originally, Turner believed it had the contractual right to carry the games. TBS has carried play-in games in the past and holds the rights to carry all of the divisional series.

But the two sides could not work out a deal for the new games during their exclusive negotiating window. Sources said the two sides could not agree on how much these games were worth. 

This will allow MLB to test the open market. Neither ESPN nor Fox has had formal talks for the games, and it’s difficult to gauge their interest. Conceivably, the package would be open to others, like NBC Sports Network. But sources said it was unlikely that a non-MLB TV partner would wind up with the games.

Several sources consider MLB Network or TBS the likely landing spot; there is a possibility that they could split the package and each carry a game.

The package of wild card games covers this season and next. MLB will start negotiation on its overall media rights package this season. Its deals with ESPN, Fox and Turner expire at the end of next season.
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