SBJ/September 24-30, 2012/Media

Fox, Turner contribute to $12 billion rights haul for MLB

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Major League Baseball is poised to announce a stunning $12.4 billion worth of media deals this week as it completes negotiations on eight-year deals with Fox and Turner to go along with its earlier deal with ESPN.

The total take from its three partners more than doubles the amount from its previous deals.

The Fox and Turner deals were not signed by press time, but all sides had agreed on terms, and a formal announcement is expected this week.

Because the deals had not been formally announced, nobody from the league or networks was authorized to speak publicly last week, but sources confirmed that Fox has committed to pay MLB $525 million a year for a package that includes annually the World Series, the All-Star Game, one league championship series and two division series. As part of the deal, Fox will sell two division series games to MLB Network for $30 million each year. It also keeps the rights to the Saturday “Game of the Week.”

Turner, meanwhile, has committed to pay $325 million a year for a package that includes one league championship series, two division series and extensive digital rights. TBS will carry 13 regular-season Sunday afternoon games, down from 26 in the current deal.

Including the $700 million per year that ESPN will pay under terms of its new deal, MLB will more than double the media rights fees it had been getting to an eye-popping $1.55 billion per season.

The deals provide yet another example of how much the market for sports rights has exploded. Last year, for example, the NFL sold its media rights for a combined $6 billion a year.

The way the market was setting up for MLB, the league expected to at least double it media rights fees. It was in the enviable position of having more bidders than packages. ESPN, Fox, Turner and MLB Network wanted to retain their packages. Newcomer NBC negotiated for a piece of the baseball pie to help its struggling NBC Sports Network cable channel. And even CBS kicked the tires at one point, looking into a joint bid with Turner.

The league took steps to try to whip up even more of a frenzy, as well. Commissioner Bud Selig approved a plan to combine two of the packages — Fox’s and Turner’s — into one. Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business, told the networks that their bids had to be “all-in,” meaning  one bid for both packages.

The first shoe dropped in late August, when ESPN signed a deal for “Sunday Night Baseball” plus Monday and Wednesday night games. ESPN agreed to pay double for the rights, increasing from $350 million to $700 million. ESPN, though, did not include any of the playoffs, other than one wild card game. When the ESPN deal was announced Aug. 28, it seemed the league would finalize the rest of its package within a week.

At the time, the league was locked into serious negotiations with Fox. Fox Sports’ top executives, co-presidents Randy Freer and Eric Shanks and executive vice president Larry Jones, flew home from New York to Los Angeles at the end of the week of Aug. 27 to ponder whether they should do the deal.

It appeared that Turner, which had carried the MLB playoffs since 2007 and has carried baseball games since the 1970s, was going to be left out. NBC also looked to be left without a package, because though it made an offer, MLB didn’t consider NBC a serious bidder after the ESPN deal was made public.

But Turner’s president of sales, distribution and sports, David Levy, wasn’t ready to give up.

Fox was dragging its feet at the cost of an all-in package, which would have cost it more than $800 million a year. The network talked about its plans to rebrand its motorsports channel Speed as an all-sports channel called Fox Sports 1 at some point before the 2014 MLB season. Fox executives felt like they needed programming that MLB had for such a channel, but they didn’t believe that they needed to buy both packages.

Meanwhile, Levy wanted to keep baseball on his network. He constantly lobbied Brosnan and his team about keeping the packages separate. He told them that Turner would not return as an interested bidder in 2021 if they didn’t at least retain their package. Plus, baseball had become important to Turner, particularly the postseason on TBS.

For Turner, it was an aggressive gamble Levy felt he had to make.

Cable operators pay Turner $1.21 per subscriber per month for TNT and 59 cents for TBS, according to numbers from SNL Kagan. Turner’s plans to increase that fee rest on keeping high-quality sports programming like the MLB playoffs in its lineup.

Turner also wanted to use baseball rights to seed Bleacher Report, the website company Turner bought in August for $175 million.

As Levy was making his argument, talks with NBC cooled. Sources said NBC did not make a strong offer, and that it was most interested in ESPN’s package, which includes exclusivity on Sunday night and the two midweek games. When ESPN took that package, NBC’s interest waned.

Levy eventually won over MLB executives, who were convinced that baseball’s rights would command a higher rights fee for two packages, rather than one. In the end, it was an easy decision to make, especially considering the long history TBS has with MLB, one that dates to 1973 when it started carrying Atlanta Braves games.

MLB eventually decided to split the packages and keep both Fox and Turner as partners.



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