ESPN goes West with its first regional net

ANAHEIM — Southern California is about to get another 24-hour regional sports network starting in October 1998, courtesy of ESPN.

Called ESPN West, “this will be the first domestic regional sports service we’ve ever launched,” said George Bodenheimer, executive VP of sales and marketing for ESPN, speaking at a news conference here Wednesday at the Western Cable Show.

The linchpin of ESPN West will be 37 games of the Anaheim Angels in 1999, which will increase to 50 games in 2000; and 40 games a year of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, starting in 1998-99. ESPN’s parent, the Walt Disney Co., owns both the Angels and the Ducks.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Vince Wladika, senior VP of Fox Sports, referring to Fox Sports West, at the Fox booth on the convention floor. Wladika said Fox Sports’ parent company, News Corp., is about to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers and Fox Sports West has a longterm deal with another premiere Southern California pro team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Fox Sports also has longterm contracts with USC and UCLA for both basketball and football, he said.

“A competitor has justified everything we’ve done,” said a Fox Sports spokesman in New York, referring to its strategy of building regional franchises. “They’ve got Disney-owned teams, so it didn’t come as a shock. But we still have the premiere teams in the marketplace: the Dodgers, the Lakers, USC and UCLA.”

Bodenheimer acknowledged at the news briefing that “we’re heading into a competitive environment.” Although ESPN West will never get access to the Dodgers’ games, “the ESPN brand speaks for itself — it’s bigger than one sports team.”

No cable operators have signed yet for ESPN West, which will be going after a total subscriber base of 4.4 million, covering Southern California, Nevada and Hawaii. Bodenheimer said ESPN West will draw on ESPN News for its sports-news programming, and will run Mexican League baseball, Latin American soccer and lifestyle programming such as surfing, biking and extreme sports.

Steve Raymond, VP of sales and marketing for ESPN’s Western division, will run the day-to-day operation of ESPN West. The network will not accept part-time carriage, Bodenheimer said. Pay-TV carriage is also a no-no, he said, because “the economic model doesn’t work for a regional sports network.” ESPN West needs access to all of the subscribers in a given cable system because advertising dollars are a big part of the network’s total revenues.

Regional sports networks are almost always the highest-priced program services in cable. The networks get away with these tariffs because a cable system is terrified of the reaction of its subscribers who are sports fans if they’re deprived of any professional sports games.

But Wladika points out that local TV stations in Los Angeles carry some of the games of the Angels and the Mighty Ducks, so some cable operators may decide to play chicken and hold out against paying the ESPN West price.

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