Networks muscle into regional sports arena

In 2006 the New York Mets enjoyed a phenomenal season, tying for the most wins in Major League Baseball with 97, while drawing a franchise record 3.3 million fans. The other team that won 97, however, was the New York Yankees, and they clearly beat the Mets in terms of history and headlines, while drawing a franchise record 4.2 million fans.

This tug of war for the hearts and minds of local sports fans is mirrored in the nation’s biggest media market, where Mets owner Fred Wilpon pulled the team off Cablevision’s Fox Sports New York last year and launched SportsNet New York (SNY) — a direct counterpunch to the Bronx Bombers and their revenue-generating YES Network.

SNY’s power move was bolstered by its teaming with Comcast and Time Warner, while the Mets scored the largest year-to-year ratings increase in all baseball. SNY boasts that it was the region’s fastest-growing network over the year in ratings and ads.

“They did great and improved as the year went on,” says sports television consultant Mike Trager.

According to SNY prexy Jon Littner, the proof is in the pudding. “For 2007 we have 25 new advertisers and are up 50% in ad sales,” he says.

Yet despite its success, SNY remains to some extent overshadowed by YES, the highest-rated RSN in the market each year, and able to beat even ESPN and the broadcast network affiliates when the Yankees play big games. They’re also the only New York RSN with both summer and winter teams (YES televises New Jersey Nets basketball).

In fact, Trager says, the arrival of SNY makes YES stronger by further fracturing what was once a monopoly.

From 1997 until YES bowed in 2002, Cablevision owned the Knicks and Rangers as well as nets MSG and FSNY, which gave it cable rights to the Mets, Yankees, Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Devils and Islanders. “They had limitless power and did a good job exploiting that,” says YES president Tracy Dolgin, crediting Cablevision with leading the migration of sports programming from broadcast to basic cable.

But YES took away the Nets and the Yankees and was able to do it without a content distributor as partner. “The most important team defines the marketplace,” Dolgin says, “and the Yankees are the most important team not just in New York but in the world.”

The Yankees’ success inspired the Mets to pay $54 million to buy their way out of their FSNY contract and start SNY. And in New York, even being second fiddle is a big deal, especially since baseball boasts a longer season and higher ratings than any other sport.

“We believe there’s a tremendous opportunity to become the voice of the fan in this city,” Littner says, especially since local newscasts have scaled back their sports reporting. SNY will pour extra resources into covering everything local, from the New York Marathon and the U.S. Open to stickball tournaments and the annual run up the Empire State Building.

“They’ve done a very good job of trying to cover all sports as aggressively as possible,” says Bob Gutkowski, president and CEO of Marketing Group Intl. “They have room to improve their news operations and need to tap the mother ship of Comcast for more resources, but they are credible.”

Meanwhile, Cablevision must redefine MSG and especially FSNY in this new sports landscape. “The Mets’ leaving has forced us to look at our business in total and see what we can do to differentiate and sustain ourselves over time,” says Mike Bair, who oversees both networks.

Bair says rather than compete directly with SNY (and ESPN), MSG, which has the Knicks and the Rangers, is being reimagined as a network that revolves around Madison Square Garden and its attendant sports and entertainment offerings. “We have 90,000 tapes going back 50 years,” he says. “We have a brand, and we can exploit that in other ways.”

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