I’m sure like me you are growing impatient with the calendar. My thoughts have turned to the glorious day when the MLB marathon starts up again and we can sit down with a beer or two in front of our TV or PC.
Part of the British baseball tradition is the annual “will baseball be on Five this year?” saga. Despite frantic posting on various forums, generally quoting vague e-mail responses from Five about “continuing negotiations”, we have often only known for sure that baseball would be on Five for another year when they released their programme schedules. MLB has seemingly concentrated on single year deals for the terrestrial rights to broadcast games in the UK in the past. So when Johnny Gould announced towards the end of last season that Five had secured the rights for both 2007 and 2008, well it was almost unbelievable (and until we see the schedules it might not completely sink in).
In a strange reversal of fortunes, it is the other TV source of baseball coverage that is shrouded in some mystery as the new season approaches. Around this time last year the North American Sports Network (NASN) issued a joint press release with MLB announcing details of a major five year deal bringing more baseball than ever to our screens. It was then reported in December that ESPN had agreed to buy NASN (although this is still to be formerly approved by Ofcom). This should make NASN a much stronger (and professional) channel, but how will it be available?
NASN is currently part of the Setanta sports package. Sky viewers have to pay an extra £15 per month for it (plus a £7 start-up fee) to buy the nine channel package which has predominantly been home to sports no one really wants to watch, such as Scottish football. Recently Setanta’s portfolio has improved considerably. Setanta was able to take advantage of the European Commission’s pressure to eliminate Sky’s monopoly on live Premiership games. They successfully purchased two of the six TV match packages and their coverage will begin from the start of the 2007/08 season. They have also recently taken over the rights to the US PGA Tour from Sky Sports and launched a substantial publicity campaign on the back of this to entice new subscribers.
Since news of ESPN’s proposed purchase of NASN was released, rumours have abounded that NASN will be taken out of the Setanta sports package and become part of the general Sky Sports package, alongside the ESPN Classic channel. So far there appears to be little concrete evidence to support these claims and there have even been some unofficial reports of Setanta confirming to subscribers that NASN will remain with them. No official comment has yet been released, so to a degree everything is still up in the air.
As with any such deal, the ultimate outcome will please some people and upset others. The media companies will make their business decision, partly influenced by the knowledge that the audience’s love of sports will generally overcome any initial annoyance. Many a baseball fan in the States has recently been upset by the reports that MLB are close to agreeing a deal with DirecTV that will result in them becoming the exclusive home of MLB Extra Innings, depriving cable subscribers of the chance to watch. If the finances stack up favourably for MLB, then the agreement will be concluded regardless of the upset it will cause some fans who are unable or unwilling to switch to DirecTV. That’s the nature of the business.
It’s fair to say that the issue of whether NASN stays on Setanta will not have much of an impact on MLB’s financial outlook! From a viewer’s perspective, putting NASN on to the main Sky Sports package would be great for North American sports fans because Sky already covers the NBA and the NFL; however I have a feeling NASN will stay where it is. The aforementioned improvements to Setanta’s portfolio has the potential to draw in new subscribers and NASN would be afforded a more prominent position here than as an “afterthought” channel on Sky. The real issue will be the financial implications of remaining with Setanta or agreeing a deal with Sky. Clearly the potential audience on Sky would be far greater than what Setanta could offer but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the more profitable choice for ESPN.
Where NASN ends up will probably play a role in many British fan’s decision on how they spend their money this year. If NASN moved to Sky Sports then personally I might consider paying for an additional Sky box rather than buying the MLB.TV package this season. As I said, I doubt this will be an issue come April but it’s worth keeping a check on. The adverts for MLB.TV are starting to appear containing general statements about improved picture quality etc. This may mean a price hike is on the cards although (whisper this quietly!) the value for money is currently so good that I wouldn’t think twice about paying a reasonable increase.
Either way, we’re lucky to have the choice to watch so much great baseball action.