Baseball cries foul over shift to ESPN2

NFL crowds Sundays, TNT may be up to bat

NEW YORK — Major League Baseball is hopping mad that ESPN wants to relegate three of its Sunday night regular-season games this September to ESPN2.

What led to this conflict is that ESPN surprised the industry in January by ponying up $600 million a year for the rights to a weekly cable-exclusive package of Sunday night National Football League games, a package ESPN had previously shared with TNT. In recent years, ESPN cablecast games during the second half of the NFL season, while TNT did the first half’s games, including the ones in September.

Although MLB is not commenting publicly on the matter, sources say MLB finds the ESPN2 alternative unacceptable because the network reaches about 17 million fewer subscribers than ESPN (57 million vs. 74 million).

“That’s a misperception about the strength of ESPN2,” says a spokesman for ESPN. “We expect the network to be in 60-million homes by September, and ESPN2 has delivered a sizable audience for big games.”

Alternative carriers

Other sources say ESPN is ready to try to get cable systems that don’t carry ESPN2 to carry the three disputed games on what the industry calls local-origination channels to pull up the audience total closer to ESPN’s 74 million.

ESPN2 carried the Orioles-Indians playoff game in 1996, chalking up a solid 2.1 rating in cable homes, when ESPN was simultaneously transmitting the Yankees-Rangers game. And on June 3 the Wednesday-at-8-p.m. game could well end up on ESPN2 if there’s a game six of the National Hockey League conference finals.

But in those instances MLB and ESPN worked out the arrangement in advance. One source says ESPN gave MLB no warning about its strategy to ace TNT out of the Sunday night cable package, presenting MLB with a done deal. MLB had to take the hit because regular-season NFL games harvest Nielsens that are five times as high as MLB games, on average.

TNT an option

MLB is holding out the possibility of taking the three games to another cable network like TNT, which pulls in more than 73 million subscribers.

TNT declined comment, although a source said TNT has such a strong lineup of theatrical movies and made-fors to be showcased on Sunday that it is an unlikely outlet for the baseball contests, particularly since they’re likely to be squashed in the ratings by the NFL games on ESPN.