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Volume 20 No. 41
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ESPN near deal to keep Little League

ESPN is closing in on an eight-year extension with Little League Baseball that will continue a 50-year relationship that the youth sports organization began with ABC in 1963.

The deal is not complete, but both sides have reached broad agreement on most terms that will see ESPN pick up all TV and digital rights through 2022.

Because a deal is not signed yet, Little League International President and CEO Steve Keener would not talk about deal terms. But he said Little League officials have had substantial discussions with ESPN. “We’ve had good and productive discussions, and we’ve got a great relationship with ESPN that we’d like nothing more to extend that, particularly as we approach the 75th anniversary of Little League next year,” he said. “ESPN’s interest in Little League is one of the big things that distinguishes us from any other youth sports organization and we certainly want to continue. But I can tell you, it is not 100 percent completed today.”

Despite increased sports TV competition from Fox and NBC, Little League never had serious discussions with anyone other than ESPN, which agreed to pay a healthy rights fee increase as part of the new deal, which starts in 2015.

It’s not clear how high the new rights fee will be. The two sides signed the current deal in 2007, with ESPN paying $30.5 million over eight years. The 2007 deal was historic in that ESPN committed to show all 32 Little League World Series games on one of its TV outlets — ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

If the deal goes through as expected, it would be the first time ESPN will hold digital rights to Little League Baseball, which portends more tournament games being made available on ESPN3, its broadband service. Digital rights were not in the current deal.

In 2009, Little League Baseball signed a deal with Youth Sports Live to stream all non-televised tournaments for $14.95. Little League did not receive a rights fee as part of that deal, but took a small percentage of each subscription sold.

It’s unclear whether ESPN is pushing to move games from ABC to ESPN, as the Disney company has spent several years migrating sports from broadcast to cable TV.

Subway has been a Little League Baseball sponsor since 2005. “It is so well integrated within Disney and ESPN, that the tournament has become an event in August you can own, when there is really is not a lot else happening in TV sports,’’ said Paul Bamundo, Subways’s director of sports marketing. “Off the field, it is a property that has real depth.’’