NEW ORLEANS — Round one in what promises to be a long fight has started between incumbent cable web Classic Sports Network and challenger American Sports Classics.
The doors had barely opened at the National Cable Television Assn.’s annual confab Monday, when Rainbow Programming Holdings Inc. surprised cablers with the news that it is launching American Sports Classics, designed to go head-to-head with the 2-year-old Classic Sports Network.
Livid CSN execs, who said Rainbow only decided to launch a new channel when it could not land an ownership interest in CSN, responded by filing a complaint with the FCC. The complaint accuses Rainbow’s parent company, Cablevision Systems Corp., with attempting to extort an equity stake in CSN in return for a promise of carriage for Cablevision’s 2.8 million subscriber base.
Garden stake in dispute
Classic Sports also said it will ask federal authorities to block Cablevision’s agreement with ITT to purchase the half-interest in Madison Square Garden that it does not already own. “It is apparent that Cablevision’s overall strategy is to dominate sports television programming and distribution in New York to the exclusion of competitive or independent programmers like Classic Sports,” said Brian Bedol, Classic Sports CEO. Classic Sports expects either the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Dept. antitrust division will review the Madison Square Garden deal, according to Bedol. Included in the deal is the MSG regional sports network.
Cablevision denied the charges. “These are more baseless allegations and just another ploy timed to pre-empt Rainbow Programming’s launch of American Sports Classics,” said a prepared statement released by Cablevision. The company added that its channel was in the works for five years.
In its FCC complaint, independently owned Classic Sports claims that Rainbow executives were “obsessed” with purchasing a stake in their network. And when Classic Sports turned down the repeated purchase offers, Cablevision withdrew its promise to give the channel broad carriage on its cable systems.
“They said, ‘We are going to rip off your product and not let you compete because we won’t put it on our systems,’ ” said Stephen Greenberg, prexy of Classics Sports Network. Like Classic Sports, American Sports Classics plans to program its network with historic footage from baseball, football, hockey, boxing and other sports. The program-ming will include “5,000 hours of vintage sports programming from an army of libraries from around the country,” according to a American Sports Classics statement.
While Classic Sports claims it has the exclusive rights to 75% of its programming, American Sports claims that much of the material is in the public domain. Greenberg told reporters Monday that ASC had damaged his com-pany’s reputation by raising questions with cable system operators about his company’s ownership rights. Green-berg said he had not ruled out a libel suit against his new rival. Classic Sports is in roughly 10 million homes.
Greenberg also said he has not ruled out a copyright infringement against American Sports Classics. In addition to the similarities between the titles, SAN featured former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali at its launch announcement on the confab floor, just as Classics Sports had done two years ago. “(Ali’s) appearance is just one of many issues which may be cited in the copyright infringement case,” said Greenberg. As he spoke, hundreds of attendees were waiting at the ASC booth to have their pictures with Ali signed.
Despite previously published reports that Rainbow had been negotiating with Classic Sports over an equity stake, Rainbow president and CEO Josh Sapan maintained Monday that it was always his company’s intention to create its own vintage sports franchise. “This has always been about launching our own channel. That’s what our agenda is,” Sapan said. Both Sapan and Cablevision officials denied that the negotiations over a Rainbow stake in Classic Sports ever took place.
In its FCC complaint, Classic Sports wrote, “CSN’s decision not to include Cablevision as an investor was rein-forced by the conversations with Sapan, in which he made it clear that Rainbow wanted to manage CSN, as well as invest in it.” In addition, Greenberg said CSN has “documentary evidence that we plan to introduce in the appro-priate forum.”
ASC said the new channel will launch July 9, with a daily preview on Cablevision’s regional sports channels, which reach 25 million homes. It will also roll out to most of Cablevision’s own subscribers.