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Sports net race is on

Fox/Liberty, ESPN eye same regional web

NEW YORK — Rupert Murdoch and John Malone have their eye on Sportschannel Florida as the hoped-for latest addition to their Fox/Liberty portfolio of regional sports networks. But Disney’s ESPN is also interested, mainly to block Fox/Liberty from harvesting a near monopoly of sports regionals.

Two events last week focused the media spotlight on Sportschannel Florida, which analysts say could fetch between $110 million and $120 million and which could be under new ownership by mid-July:

Fox/Liberty ponied up $850 million to buy a 40% stake in eight regional sports networks under the Cablevision Systems banner, a deal that included the 30% interest Cablevision has in Sportschannel Florida;

Wayne Huizenga, who owns the other 70% of Sportchannnel Florida, said publicly that he would entertain offers for his share in the network.

Fox/Liberty, ESPN and Cablevision Systems all declined comment. Also not commenting is a potential third bidder for Sportschannel Florida, Barry Diller’s Silver King Broadcasting. But one source says Cablevision has a right of first refusal on which company buys Huizenga’s 70% interest, so the only way ESPN or Silver King could get Sportschannel Florida away from Murdoch would be to make a bid so large that Fox/Liberty would walk away from the table.

Florida is one of the rare territories not dominated by one sports regional. Sportschannel Florida, which reaches about 3.2 million Florida subscribers (via both cable and direct satellite), faces an even stronger Florida competitor in the Sunshine Network, which gets into 4.1 million cable and satellite homes. Sunshine’s 51% owners are a consortium of cable operators, including Murdoch’s arch enemy Time Warner Cable. Fox/Liberty owns the remaining 49% of Sunshine.

Sunshine has long-term rights deals with the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic of the NBA and the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL. Sunshine shares the local rights to Major League Baseball’s Florida Marlins with Sportschannel Florida. But next year Sportschannel begins the first year of an exclusive five-year contract with the Marlins. Sportschannel Florida also has long-term exclusives with the Florida Panthers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the new baseball team.

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