Nets on deck with playoffs

Big inning bats for Fox, ESPN

The Fox Network and ESPN are not popping any champagne corks yet, but the baseball postseason, which begins tonight on Fox, appears set to hit a home run.

Teams from four of the top six cities in the U.S. are represented, and the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the bitterest rivals in baseball, could very well meet up for another League Championship best of seven, starting next week.

“The value associated with postseason baseball is as high as I can remember it,” said David Carter, the Los Angeles-based principal of the Sports Business Group.

Carter cites the big-market teams that have made it to the playoffs but adds that “baseball has put its labor unrest to bed, and it’s beginning to deal with the steroid situation. The continuity is a real plus, and it’s brought sponsors back into the fold as supporters of Major League Baseball.”

Baseball is also on a roll in the dollars it pocketed from its latest contract with ESPN, which agreed last month to pony up a staggering 71% increase, on average, over its previous six-year deal.

Based on ratings alone, it appears that ESPN drastically overpaid for baseball: The network was down by 9% in household ratings and by 5% in total viewers year to year. But baseball got lucky because Comcast’s OLN cable network made a major push to get baseball’s cable rights, triggering classic supply/demand economics: The price shot up.

The final tariff for ESPN was a record $2.64 billion for eight years, and the Fox Network has one year left on a six-year, $2.5 billion contract. If masses of people gravitate to Fox for the playoffs and World Series, baseball will have some momentum going into the next contract. The exclusive negotiating period for that pact ends in December.

If the parties can’t reach an agreement by then, baseball has the right to pull in other potential bidders for the package, which covers the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, and first dibs on other postseason games, plus a regular schedule of Saturday-afternoon games.

Even though last year’s World Series lasted only the minimum, a four-game blowout of the St. Louis Cardinals by the Boston Red Sox, it scored a 15.8 rating, the best number in six years.

Questioned about the contract, Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports, didn’t appear stressed out. “We have a 10-year history with baseball,” Goren said during a conference call with reporters, “so I don’t think that the ratings in one given year should affect the rights negotiations.”

The Fox Network is piling up better ratings in primetime so far this season than it did during the same period in 2004, Goren said, so the disruption in primetime caused by baseball may not put the network at a fourth-quarter Nielsen disadvantage in entertainment programming, as it has in some previous years.

For this week alone, ESPN will get a number of games in the best-of-five division series, after which Fox takes over.

Although the regular-season games are considered not much more than a throw-in for Fox, Goren said they still averaged a solid 2.6 rating this year, the same rating as they did in 1996, the first year of the Fox/MLB contract. And since each rating point represents more viewers 10 years later, the average number of total viewers watching Saturday baseball on Fox this year was 3.6 million, compared with 3.2 million in 1996.

Mike Trager, sports consultant and former head of Clear Channel TV, said no other network is likely to try to elbow out Fox for the broadcast rights to baseball. “Fox is the best equipped to handle the sport,” he said.

The postseason could still stumble in the ratings. Bob Gutkowski, head of Marketing Group Intl. and former president of Madison Square Garden, said there are no obvious team or player storylines that would attract the casual fan during the first round.

And if either the Yankees or the Red Sox get eliminated in the division series, the fans who’d love to see two cutthroat rivals go at each other hammer and tong will have to wait until next year.

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