ESPN joining regional team

CSS, NESN pacts to level field against Fox

NEW YORK — By engineering deals with NESN (New England Sports Network) and CSS (Comcast Sports Southeast), ESPN may be preparing to challenge Fox’s dominance in regional sports networks.

These deals represent the first time ESPN has ever signed an affiliation contract with a regional sports network. As part of the arrangement, NESN and CSS will carry more than 100 hours per week of sports newscasts from ESPN News. Also included are a number of weekly college football and college basketball games that the regional-TV division of ESPN distributes nationwide.

These agreements revived rumors of behind-the-scenes talks between ESPN and George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees and the New Jersey Nets, to set up a new regional sports network in the Tri-State area (N.Y., N.J. and Conn.) to compete with the existing N.Y. regionals, the Madison Square Garden Network and Fox Sports New York. These two sports networks are co-owned by News Corp. and Cablevision Systems Corp.

“ESPN understands the importance of regional sports, which yield strong competitive programming because of the interest generated among local fans,” says Bob Igiel, exec VP and director of U.S. broadcast for Y&R’s Media Edge. “ESPN would love to harness that audience.”

ESPN would also love to extract revenge against Rupert Murdoch for outflanking ESPN’s parent Walt Disney Co. last year, which bought the Anaheim Angels and Anaheim Mighty Ducks as core programming for a proposed regional sports network in Southern California called ESPN Sports West.

Fox Sports West, the Los Angeles-based regional, quickly created a clone called Fox Sports West 2 and induced many local cable operators to buy it, forcing ESPN to throw in the towel in 1998 and sell rights to Angels’ and Ducks’ games to Fox Sports West for 10 years.

Sources at Fox Sports Net, which encompasses a lineup of 22 regional sports networks reaching more than 68 million subscribers, say they’re not worrying about any new initiatives by ESPN.

NESN’s signing with ESPN comes as no surprise, these sources said, because the long-term contract between NESN and Fox Sports expires on Dec. 31. NESN had to find a new supplier of national sports news and events because Fox Sports planned all along to shift its affiliation to Fox Sports New England, which it took a 40% stake in more than two years ago.

And CSS started operation less than two months ago on 22 Comcast cable systems stretching north from Florida to Kentucky and west from South Carolina to Arkansas, covering a subscriber base of about 968,000 households.

Mike Sheehey, VP and general manager of CSS, says there’ll be no top-level pro sports teams in his programming lineup because “the last thing we want to do is get into a bidding war with Fox for these rights.” Instead, CSS will focus on college sports as the main big-ticket events, supplemented by minor-league baseball and hockey, auto racing and outdoor shows. Sheehey says he’ll leave the big-bucks professional contracts to CSS’ regional competitors, Fox Sports South and Turner South.

CSS and NESN will rely heavily on ESPN News to fill large chunks of their programming schedules, subject to preemption for live events. For example, on Monday through Friday, NESN will carry ESPN News from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The owners of NESN are the Boston Red Sox (a 48% stake), the Boston Bruins (32%) and the Viacom-owned TV station WSBK Boston (20%).