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N.Y.’s new ballgame

Yankees-Nets eye Schiller, regional cablenet

NEW YORK — The joint venture between the New York Yankees and the New Jersey Nets may be getting closer to creating a new regional sports cable net for the teams’ games.

Reigniting these new-network reports was a published story claiming that Harvey Schiller is about to resign as president of Turner Sports to take over as head of operations for the Yankees-Nets, after being courted by owner George Steinbrenner for months.

A spokesman for Turner Sports says the company doesn’t comment on rumors.

Schiller has been the head of Turner Sports since 1994, after he left his position as executive director and secretary of the U.S. Olympic Committee. One source close to the company said that losing Schiller would be “devastating” for Turner sports, which lost the NFL a year ago and is currently losing the wrestling ratings battle with World Championship Wrestling against the WWF on USA Monday nights. The source goes on to say that Turner will not lose the exec without a fight.

Bob Gutkowski, a sports consultant and former president of Madison Square Garden, says that over the years Schiller has built a solid relationship with Time Warner, the parent company of Turner Sports. As head of the Yankees-Nets, Schiller would take on the responsibility of offering an equity stake in a new regional sports network to Time Warner Cable of New York City in exchange for clearance on its NYC cable systems, which reach more than 1 million subscribers.

“Another logical step,” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and head of his own consulting firm, “would be for the new network to link up with ESPN” for its programming expertise as a complement to the extensive distribution that the network would get from TW Cable in the greater New York area.

ESPN would love to do such a deal, not only because it’s eager to set up its first regional sports network but, said Pilson, “to get some payback against Fox Sports, which torpedoed ESPN’s attempt to create a sports regional on the West Coast.” Anticipating that ESPN’s proposed regional, ESPN Sports West, was on the drawing boards, Fox Sports West created a second regional and secured deals with a number of Southern California cable systems, effectively shutting out ESPN Sports West.

Yankee games would become available to a new sports regional in New York in the 2001 season — the Yankees have one more year after the current season on the existing contract with MSG Network. The Nets would enter the picture a year later because the team’s contract with Fox Sports N.Y. doesn’t expire until after the 2001-02 season.

The real battle royal for the new network would come in its negotiations with Charles Dolan’s Cablevision Systems Corp., the second-largest cable operator in the greater Gotham area. Dolan is also the majority partner in the MSG Network and Fox Sports N.Y., and he’ll be hopping mad at losing cable rights to the Yankees and Nets games.