TV Exex Say Baseball Scabs Don’t Rate

With baseball maintaining its strike-induced stance of self-destruction, and President Clinton having been the last batter to swing and miss at a solution, baseball’s TV programmers and advertisers sit in the stands and stew. They’re also quietly terrified.

Execs at the networks, at regional sports services, and at local stations remember all too well the field of nightmares that was the shattered 1994 season – when nine weeks of late-season games, the league playoffs and World Series were thrown out. No one knows who will be on the diamond – or the tube – in ’95. And spring-training camps open Feb. 16. Will there be a delayed season? Or maybe the ultimate curveball: Scab Games.

At stake for 28 teams in markets around the U.S. and Canada are local TV deals ranging from $2 million to $40 million per team for this season alone, plus radio-rights pacts worth up to $6 million each. Then there are the national agreements, headlined by the ABC-NBC revenue-sharing partnership, with a sales target of more than $300 million.

The question is, in the wake of last year’s cancellation of the World Series – its first nixing in 90 years – if the stars don’t come out again this summer, who will turn on the games? Who wants to watch somebody’s mailman play center field in Yankee Stadium?

TV needs to know that answer. Talk is widespread that if scab ball appears, rate cards go out the window and commercial time goes on sale at radically reduced prices. Then there’s the question of pricing if some big-leaguers cross the picket lines to play – Philadelphia Phillies star center fielder Len Dykstra is the most recent to raise that specter.

This season is supposed to be Year Two for The Baseball Network, the liaison between NBC, ABC and Major League Baseball to program up to 14 regionalized regular-season games per week from July to October, plus playoffs and World Series. Last year’s premiere was stabbed in the heart in August, with an estimated $130 million in ad time sold, far short of the $330 million needed for automatic renewal of the partnership in 1996.

“The baseball owners have not addressed the current situation with the Baseball Network, and the Baseball Network has not addressed it with us,” said Jon Miller, senior VP of sports programming at NBC. “Until we see what kind of product is going to be on the field, I don’t know what we’re going to do. But we do not want to do scab games.”

TBN isn’t scheduled to go on the air until July’s All-Star (All-Scab?) Game, so the partnership has a bit more time than other programmers to see how the labor talks turn out.

“It’s still premature for us to speculate on what scenario might prevail in ’95,” said Ray Stallone, director of marketing communications at TBN.

ESPN, which paid $255 million for six years of baseball beginning in ’94, has scheduled 75 games for ’95, starting in April. But as to what might happen this season, ESPN programming and sales execs had a collective comment: No comment. The cabler also won’t speculate on whether it will bother to produce scab games.

Few wanted to venture a guess at the kind of beating the ratings could take. One recent poll said that 63% of fans might watch replacement games on TV – which means that 37% probably won’t. Some called that apathy level far too low.

“I do not believe any of those polls,” said Seth Abraham, president and CEO of Time Warner Sports. “TV sports fans will not watch those games. If they did want to, then minor-league baseball would already be on the networks.”

“There’s no way our clients will support the replacement games,” said Stephen Grubbs, senior VP and director of national TV buying and program development at BBDO New York. “Even at a depressed rate? I can’t imagine selling it.”

For its “Baseball Night in America” games, TBN last year set up a rate-card charge estimated at around $75,000 per 30-second spot for the primetime regular-season telecasts. In the strike-cancelled playoffs – which were to expand in ’94 to include eight teams instead of four – spot prices were said to range from $100,000-$200,000. For the washed-out World Series, the prices were reportedly more than $300,000.

At the Madison Square Garden Network, serving the largest market (New York) and the most famous team (the Yankees), ball-park figures are tough to come by. MSG is committed to 101 Yankee games in ’95, and like every other programmer, the cabler won’t swing at anything until it sees the first pitch.

“Right now we’re negotiating ad deals on the assumption that there’ll be a season under normal conditions,” said MSG director of sales Jim Liberatore. “If problems come up, we’ll evaluate. Our advertisers have been pretty good about letting this ride and waiting for some answers.”

Traditionally, MSG will have at least 70% of its baseball ad time sold before a season starts. Liberatore wouldn’t say how much time has been sold so far, but he’ll know a lot more within a month.

He also acknowledged that in the contract between MSG and the Yankees, there’s no stipulation about whether “low-quality” baseball means automatic rebates on the estimated $300,000 per game that MSG is paying the team. “If the guys on the field are wearing New York Yankee uniforms, then that’s what the team can call Yankee baseball,” Liberatore said.

In the meantime, many baseball teams are announcing ticket-price slashes of up to 75%, which made sources that much more nervous. Legislators are looking to introduce bills that will ban replacement players in major-league parks. Indeed, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Peter Angelos, has said he won’t put a scab team on his field, heavy fines be damned. And the still-reigning ’93 champs, the Toronto Blue Jays, are forbidden by Ontario provincial law to use non-union players.

To add to the chaos, CBS Sports is talking about a deal, sponsored by Reebok, for a series of exhibition games this summer with dozens of major-league stars who won’t cross the picket lines. This “alternative” league could include four teams for a 40-game season of weekend TV games, some in primetime.

“We’ve continued to let baseball entities know we are interested in any major property that comes along,” said CBS Sports president David Kenin. “But in regard to the (rumored) Baseball Players Assn. league, we haven’t had any conversations of late.” Sources indicated that interest in such a deal is very much alive, even though NBC and Fox pulled out of such an arrangement last week.

Baseball’s ugliest hour may leave tattoos that will last through the decade, especially on how the nets deal with major sports leagues in the near future. CBS’ four-year, $1.06 billion baseball deal concluded in ’93, and heavy losses from it were reported at the Eye web. TBN, a first-ever revenue-sharing deal, is off to a terrible start.

“I think baseball people realize that once this is settled, they will never get the CBS-type money again from the networks,” said a rival network exec. Yet CBS is widely rumored to also be looking into a standard rights-fee deal for baseball if and when TBN pulls the plug.

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