For Baseball, TV Landscape Is Becoming a Pretty Picture
Major League Baseball collects an average of $711 million every year from ESPN, Fox and Turner. It wants more, and in coming negotiations for deals that start after the 2013 season, it should get it.
The evolving television landscape provides the rationale.
NBC wants to return to baseball, and its cable channel, NBC Sports Network, needs programming that is more powerful than its current marquee properties: the N.H.L. and the Tour de France. Fox is considering turning its Speed channel into an all-sports network, which would need more than motor racing to thrive.
In addition, rights fees for professional and college sports have soared since M.L.B. made its current deals with ESPN, Fox, and Turner. More than ever, big-time live sports are must-have attractions.
Baseball is clearly trying to exploit the networks’ appetites. According to people briefed on the conversations, M.L.B. has been talking with the networks about changing the configurations of the current deal. The strategy could make the three incumbents worried that some of what they have — maybe “Sunday Night Baseball,” an ESPN staple — could be offered elsewhere.
One change baseball has proposed is an all-encompassing deal to one media giant for a game of the week, the All-Star Game and the postseason, said the people briefed on the discussions, who were not authorized to speak publicly. That is unlikely to happen because leagues prefer to satisfy multiple partners, if only to avoid angering more than one losing bidder.
There may also be two TV partners carrying baseball nationally, not three.
M.L.B. and network executives declined requests for interviews.
Baseball can gaze upon NBC and see a company that needs it. NBC is the fourth-ranked network, even though “Sunday Night Football” finished last season as the highest rated program in prime time. NBCSN cannot survive on only hockey, cycling, boxing, Mountain West Conference football, horse racing, soccer and elk hunting. It does not have N.B.A. or N.F.L. rights. The NBC Sports Group lost the bidding for Pacific-12 conference rights and saw ESPN take all of Wimbledon in part because NBC could not guarantee the All-England Club all-live coverage. NBC did hold on to its N.F.L. and PGA Tour rights.
NBC (along with NBCSN, Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC and Telemundo) will televise the Olympics from London starting July 27, and it has agreed to spend $4.38 billion for the next four Olympics.
And although NBC’s Olympic coverage will dominate prime time, and NBCSN will get record viewership during the Games, reality will hit after the closing ceremony. The NBC family of networks needs bigger, better programming.
Networks go through cycles. Baseball used to be synonymous with NBC. And NBC used to be No. 1 in prime time. In 1996, late in the first season of a five-year, $400 million contract with baseball, Don Ohlmeyer, the president of NBC’s West Coast division, declared that ratings for division and league championship series games were depressing prime-time ratings. He wanted to break the contract.
“I wish we hadn’t made this deal,” Ohlmeyer said.
Mark Lazarus, the chairman of the NBC Sports Group, may be looking for ways to make a deal. NBCSN would like to use baseball to help push its number of subscribers beyond the nearly 80 million it has, and raise subscriber fees, which would bring in millions of dollars in new revenue. He would love to use the World Series to promote new programming and win a few nights of prime time.
But if he and his bosses at Comcast do not bid aggressively, NBC will not get baseball.
Comcast could determine that baseball is too expensive or that its ratings and older demographic do not thrill them. Maybe it will move on and save its cash for NBC to bid for Nascar rights next year.
ESPN, which acquires or keeps nearly all it wants, would love to blunt Comcast/NBC’s bid to grab a share of baseball and blunt NBCSN as a competitor. And ESPN would also love to keep Fox — which carries Saturday afternoon (and night) games, the All-Star Game, one league championship series and the World Series — from growing stronger with its own version of an ESPN rival.
Turner wants to stick with what it has on TBS: Sunday afternoon games, the two new wild-card games, all but the two division series games carried by the MLB Network and one league championship series. Ideally, it would like more. But baseball will not let the World Series migrate to cable. If M.L.B. ultimately requires that all bidders attach themselves to a broadcaster, Turner would link up with the only unattached network: CBS. From 1990 to ’93, CBS televised baseball. It paid a total of $1.06 billion and lost about half its investment.
CBS does not need the World Series — it is a strong No. 1 in prime time — but it enjoys the sort of happy partnership with Turner on the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament that could result in a postseason role for CBS and some regular-season games on cable for CBS Sports Network.
What seems inescapable is that baseball, wherever its games are seen, will be richer soon.