MLB and ESPN Ki$$ and Make Up

Remember those exciting ESPN Sunday Night Baseball games last September? Of course not. Sunday Night Baseball went off the air as soon as the NFL season began.

After winning exclusive cable rights to the NFL in 1998, ESPN decided to shift September's Sunday Night Baseball telecasts to its sister station, ESPN2. MLB objected. The dispute centered on the interpretation of a clause in the contract between the parties. The key provision allowed ESPN to move games to ESPN2 to accommodate "events of significant viewer interest." MLB's consent to such moves was required, but this approval could not be unreasonably withheld.

ESPN claimed that because NFL games drew much higher ratings, they were "events of significant viewer interest," and that MLB was unreasonably withholding consent. MLB responded that "events of significant viewer interest" meant special events or playoff games whose dates couldn't be predicted in advance, not regular programming. When the dispute first arose in September 1998, neither side blinked, and the last Sunday Night Baseball telecasts of the season were canceled. The first game missed proved to be among the season's most historic: the end of Cal Ripken's consecutive-game streak.

When the dispute arose again last year, MLB sued to void the final three years of its cable deal with ESPN. Analysts speculated that other cable channels -- notably TNT, FOX Sports or fX -- might be willing to pay handsomely for the rights. Having just lost rights to NASCAR races, ESPN couldn't afford to lose the other half of its live summer programming.

On December 6, just hours before the trial was set to begin, ESPN and MLB settled their dispute with a new six-year contract. The new deal amounts to a three-year, $700 million extension of their previous pact. MLB will continue to receive $35 million for the 2000 season and $40 million for 2001 and 2002 -- but it also receives a $125 million "signing bonus" from ESPN, and rights fees jump to $175 million in 2003, $200 million in 2004 and 2005.

For once, fans actually stand to benefit from the squabbling. ESPN and ESPN2 will combine to show 108 games this season, up from 90 in 1999. 44 of these games will air on ESPN2, including one of the two Wednesday Night Baseball telecasts. ESPN 2 also adds a new Sunday afternoon "Baseball Today" series and additional broadcasts of ESPN's signature "Baseball Tonight" recap, increasing the incentive for cable systems to add "The Deuce" to their lineup. All told, viewers can will receive over 800 hours of baseball coverage on ESPN and ESPN2, up from 500 in 1999.

The increase will become apparent early in the season. ESPN's schedule promises five national cablecasts on Opening Day, five more on Memorial Day, and six on the Fourth of July, when baseball junkies will be able to mainline continuous live ballgames from 1 PM until 1 AM. Later in the season, ESPN2 will occasionally carry a second Sunday night game. When the NFL resumes in September, Sunday Night Baseball won't go away; instead, it will move to Friday nights for the rest of the regular season.

But Sox fans living outside New England won't be happy with ESPN's selection of games. The Red Sox will appear in just two of the 29 national telecasts announced to date -- their April 4 opener in Seattle and a Sunday night game in Yankee Stadium on May 28.

Moreover, ESPN viewers will be "treated" to even more of those annoying ads behind home plate. The network has contracted with Princeton Video Image, Inc. to create computer-generated "virtual advertising" which can be superimposed on the view from the center-field camera during each at-bat. In an ideal world, revenue from such ads could allow ESPN and MLB to shorten the between-inning commercial breaks. Don't hold your breath...

Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published on the Boston Baseball Website in March 2000.

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