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
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
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
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
Originally published on the Boston Baseball Website in
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