Sports net, not team, a more likely play

As Fred Wilpon looks to sell a piece of the New York Mets to a strategic partner, it might seem like Comcast and Time Warner Cable would be interested given their existing relationship with the team as owners of the New York sports net SNY.

Probably not, say sports executives and analysts who follow the companies. The companies themselves declined comment Friday.

Mets Chairman Wilpon said Friday the team was seeking one or more partners to help offset the uncertainty that has been created by a lawsuit filed against Wilpon and others related to the sweeping Ponzi scheme engineered by Bernie Madoff.

The Mets have hired Allen & Co. banker Steve Greenberg as an advisor for finding a partner. Greenberg is most commonly known as the son of the first Jewish Hall of Famer, Tigers outfielder Hank Greenberg, but he is also a co-founder of the channels that are now ESPN Classic and CBS College Sports, with partner Brian Bedol. He also served as an advisor to the Mets when it formed the SNY channel, launched in 2006 in partnership with Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Owning part of the channel and not the team may be the smarter move for the two companies. “They already have a piece of the sports net, which is where the value is,” said BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. “Why buy the sports team? Normally you buy the team to get a piece of the sports net. Seems unnecessary for them now with SNY.”

And that was precisely Comcast’s strategy in Philadelphia by owning the NBA’s Sixers and NHL’s Flyer and then controlling the broadcast rights on their own RSN in that market.

Time Warner Cable owns little content. Other than its piece of SNY, it owns the 24-hour local news network NY1.

In December, a trustee for Madoff’s victims sued Wilpon and others seeking an undisclosed amount of money to compensate them, alleging the Wilpons actually made money in Madoff’s scheme.

Instead of Comcast owning a piece of the Mets, what Greenfield would like to see is the cable operator buy Liberty Media’s Starz channel. He believes a premium channel is the one missing piece in the Comcast NBC U j.v. equation. In a report released Friday, Greenfield said he felt it would be of greater value to Comcast to license Universal Studios content to itself with Starz than to HBO. U’s deal with HBO expires in 2014/15.

What’s more, Greenfield contends that owning Starz would give Comcast a strategic advantage over Netflix, which competes with its own online video service Xfinity. By having access to Sony and Disney digital content through Starz, Comcast could create an “effective multi-platform competitor to Netflix (essentially an Xfinity movie and TV service for consumers outside Comcast’s territory and non-subscribers with Comcast’s footprint).”

Of course, Comcast’s deal for NBC U, a year-long process, finally closed Friday and pondering another deal may not be a first priority.

A Time Warner Cable spokesman declined and a source close to Comcast said the company had no interest in buying a stake.

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