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Baseball Links Extra Innings to MLB Channel

Mar 8, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Major League Baseball, looking to defuse criticism over putting its Extra Innings package of out-of-market games exclusively on DirecTV, said it is giving cable operators and EchoStar Communications another turn at bat.

Cable operators blasted the offer, saying it was impossible for them or cable to meet the terms Major League Baseball is demanding.

DirecTV and MLB signed a seven-year deal under which it will carry Extra Innings and a new baseball channel that will launch in 2009. DirecTV will be a minority owner of the channel.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and EchoStar have until the start of the baseball season to agree to carry Extra Innings, but only if they “agreed to carriage rights to the MLB Channel proportionally equivalent to DirecTV’s commitment.”

Baseball officials declined to answer whether that meant cable operators would have to put the new channel on their basic tiers, as DirecTV will. If so, that would make it almost impossible for them to continue to carry the Extra Innings package.

“Major League Baseball has chosen to cut a de facto exclusive deal – including conditions for carriage that MLB and DirecTV designed to be impossible for cable and Dish to meet,” said Robert Jacobson, president-CEO of In Demand Networks, which is owned by the big cable operators and negotiates some program deals for them.

“This decision represents the height of disrespect and disregard for their loyal baseball fans,” Mr. Jacobson said.

EchoStar attacked the deal because it pushes the baseball channel on all of its subscribers.

“We have been asking Major League Baseball to make the package available a la carte, so only those who choose to get the games today can continue to do so. We hope they will act in the best interest of consumers and provide that option,” EchoStar said in a statement. “DirecTV and MLB, as owners of the package, should not be able to line their pockets at the expense of consumers who don’t want and won’t watch the content.”

Should the cable operators and EchoStar fail to reach agreements by the end of the month, DirecTV would get the Extra Innings package exclusively and pay a premium price for the package, reportedly $100 million a year.

“Exclusive and non-exclusive are different deals,” said Chase Carey, president and CEO of DirecTV. While he said he would prefer an exclusive arrangement, “Either one works for us.”

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said the two-track arrangement puts the ball in the cable operator’s court and should relieve the pressure being put on baseball by government officials. “The decision is not up to us anymore,” Mr. Selig said.

Cable operators, warning that some of their high-revenue subscribers might lose access to the package, stirred up opposition to the deal in local papers and on Capitol Hill. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., referred the exclusive deal to the Federal Communications Commission, which said it will review the situation.

“I will review this deal to ensure it benefits consumers. I’m encouraged that Major League Baseball may be willing to provide broader access to their games than what was initially proposed,” Sen. Kerry said in a statement after the deal was announced. “I will be watching closely to ensure the league works in good faith so that America’s pastime is available to all fans. My concern all along has been that fans continue to have the ability to enjoy baseball on television. “

About 250,000 subscribers get Extra Innings through cable operators. About 270,000 subscribe via DirecTV.

(Editor: Horowitz)