ESPN, TW playing ball

Deal clears TBS to b'cast Braves games

NEW YORK — Steve Bornstein, president and CEO of ESPN, has good news for Time Warner: ESPN will no longer stand in the way of TW’s desire to schedule at least 90 Atlanta Braves games on TBS when the superstation changes its stripes to become a basic-cable network on Jan. 1, 1998.

Speaking at a luncheon here on Tuesday, Bornstein said ESPN is close to a deal with Major League Baseball that would add at least two more years to its current five-year, $435-million deal, which runs through 2000.

In exchange for the extension, ESPN, which owns the cable rights to MLB and thus has to give its permission before TBS can air the Braves next year, will stop withholding that permission. (As a superstation, TBS needed the approval only of MLB.)

Starting in 1998, “Turner will have to pay money to Major League Baseball for the right to put the Braves on,” instead of — as it does now —funnelling cash to the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, which then disperses the superstation money to the various teams, Bornstein says.

TBS is becoming a basic cable network so it can start collecting monthly license fees from cable operators, which by late 1999 could add a cool $100 million a year to Turner’s coffers.

But Bornstein also has some bad news for TW, declaring that ESPN will make a major push to get the cable network rights to National Basketball Assn. games away from Turner Broadcasting’s TNT and TBS, which have one more season on the current four-year, $87.5-million contract.

But Turner won’t let the NBA get away without a potentially stratospheric bidding war, particularly since NBA games were a major ingredient in catapulting TNT into the highest-rated cable network in primetime for 1996.

NBA negotiations are expected to kick off in the fall. Rupert Murdoch is also expected to belly up to the auction bar to get the NBA rights for his FX cable network and his regional sports channels.

The emergence of Fox as a regional sports-network powerhouse, reaching 55 million cable homes throughout the U.S., “will elevate the level of competition,” Bornstein says.

Bornstein disparages Fox’s plan to create an unwired network for national advertisers looking to buy packages of spots on local professional games. The reason that plan will fail, Bornstein continues, is that the regional sports channels will soon realize that they can make far more money selling the spots locally than allowing a central Fox sales office to discount them for the one-stop-shopping convenience of advertisers.

George Bodenheimer, executive VP of sales and marketing for ESPN, and Ed Durso, the network’s executive VP of administration, announced two pieces of news at the press briefing: ESPNews has signed a deal with DirecTv, which puts the channel into about 5 million homes, and ESPN2 will break the 50 million-subscriber barrier next month, making it one of the fastest growing networks in the history of cable.

To a question about the recent embarrassing tabloid stories about sports announcer Frank Gifford, Bornstein, in his other role as president of ABC Sports, said, “That’s none of my business. As long as Frank wants to be an announcer on Monday Night Football, he’s got the job.”

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