Steinbrenner bats Schiller into top job

MSG, Fox fear rumors of regional sports network

NEW YORK — The New York cable-sports scene could be headed for its biggest shakeup in years because George Steinbrenner, boss of the New York Yankees, has successfully raided Turner Sports to get the executive who’ll run the new company set up to operate the Yankees and the New Jersey Nets (Daily Variety, Sept. 20).

The executive, Harvey Schiller, has told Ted Turner that he will not sign a new contract as president of Turner Sports.

Howard Rubenstein, spokesman for Steinbrenner, declined comment on the possible hiring of Schiller, but sources say Steinbrenner will make the announcement as soon as Major League Baseball approves the merger of the Yankees and the Nets, which could happen in the next week.

The official resignation of Schiller has reignited speculation that Steinbrenner plans to create a regional sports network in the greater New York area, using the games of the Yankees and the Nets as the core of the programming schedule.

The setting up of such a network would strike a severe blow at the two existing cable regionals, MSG (Madison Square Garden) Network, which carries most of the home and away games of the Yankees, and Fox Sports New York, which carries all of the Nets games.

During his five years at TBS, Schiller, among many other duties, served as point person in overhauling Turner Sports South into a combination sports and entertainment cable network (now called Turner South). Neal Pilson, a sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports, says Schiller could engineer the same strategy for Steinbrenner.

‘Solid programming’

“Yankees and Nets games are solid programming, but there’d be 7,000 additional hours to fill,” Pilson said. “I could see Steinbrenner creating an entertainment complex out of the Yankees and Nets, and buying movies, children’s programming and other TV shows to play on the new regional channel.”

Rick Gentile, president of Diamond Sports, a production company, said, “Steinbrenner could produce a whole series of local sports shows tied to the Yankees and Nets games, such as pre-game shows, post-game shows and coaches’ shows, focusing on the local teams.”

These local programs would do far better in the ratings than nationally produced programming syndicated by entities like ESPN News, Fox Sports and CNN/SI, Gentile said.

Steinbrenner vs. Dolan

A fierce conflict could erupt between Steinbrenner and Charles Dolan, chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., which owns a 60% stake in MSG and Fox Sports N.Y. (Fox Sports owns the other 40%). Cablevision also controls cable systems reaching 2.8 million subscribers throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and the company, furious over losing the Yankees and the Nets, could refuse to carry the new regional network on any of those systems.

Pilson said Dolan would never get away with depriving his subscribers of Yankees games because “the team just has too much leverage” due to the enormous power of its brand name and its perennial winning record.

“The fans would rise up if they couldn’t see the Yankees on cable,” Gentile added. “And the politicians would quickly come in” and help to make Dolan’s life miserable.

Gentile said Schiller could seek a partnership with ESPN, which late last week signed its first affiliation deals with a regional, linking up with New England Sports Network and Comcast Sports South (Daily Variety, Nov. 1).

ESPN would be all ears because it’s still smarting over getting torpedoed by Fox Sports, which beat it to the punch in Southern California last year when it set up a sports regional — Fox Sports West II — before ESPN Sports West could get off the ground.

Based on existing contracts, a new sports regional would not be able to start scheduling Yankees games until the 2001 season, and it wouldn’t get Nets games until the 2002-03 season.