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ESPN hits baseball

Cabler sues MLB over attempt to end contract

NEW YORK — ESPN, furious at Major League Baseball’s attempt to terminate its six-year contract with the network at the end of this season, is hauling MLB into court.

The dispute stems from baseball’s unwillingness to allow ESPN (which reaches 76 million homes) to shift three late-September, Sunday-night games to ESPN2 (which gets into only 64.5-million households).

The shift became necessary last year when ESPN outbid TNT for the rights to a Sunday-night package of National Football League games exclusive to cable. The first three weeks of the NFL season dovetailed with the last three weeks of the MLB season.

The parties tabled the impasse last September when baseball pulled the three games from ESPN2 and funneled them to local rights holders, like regional sports networks and TV stations.

‘Events of significance’

Dick Glover, executive VP of programming for ESPN, says it regards the three disputed games as subject to a clause that allows the network to preempt up to 10 baseball games a year for “events of significance.”

In past years, baseball has agreed to permit ESPN to substitute programming such as a Grand National auto race, a college-world-series game and a National Hockey League playoff game, Glover says.

But even though a typical NFL game quadruples the rating of an average MLB game, “Baseball is clearly refusing to accept a position that’s subordinate to football,” says Neal Pilson, a sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports. A baseball spokesman didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.Tuesday.

Pilson says that, in pushing to abrogate its current contract with ESPN, baseball is asking for increases of up to triple the approximately $65 million a year ESPN pays MLB for the rights to about 85 regular-season games a year through the year 2000, and six-to-12 post-season playoff games a year through 2000.

Baseball wants more

Sources say baseball has become convinced ESPN is paying far too little money for games vital to the network in the months when there’s no college football and basketball, no NFL football and only end-of-season NHL hockey.

Glover counters that ESPN schedules 500 hours’ worth of Major League Baseball programming each year, including coverage of the games, sports reports and specials, and 880 extra hours of tapes of old games on ESPN Classic. ESPN Radio and ESPN Intl. also have deals with baseball that call for extensive coverage.

And Pilson says that, for the most part, baseball ratings are the pits. “The demographics of baseball,” he says, “are old, lower-income people who live in rural areas.”

To ad agencies on Madison Avenue, that’s a triple-whammy: three reasons not to spend advertisers’ money on baseball, except at rummage-sale prices.