MLB poised to cash in on TV rights deals

Major League Baseball may have kicked off its 143rd season with a bit of a misstep Wednesday by not allowing its first Opening Series game in Japan to be aired live on TV, but everything else broadcast-wise should unfold quite nicely for the league this year.

The baseball rights deals that ESPN, FOX and TBS hold expire following the 2013 season, and the league is in prime position to capitalize on new deals because of new sports broadcast competitors and an altered playoff schedule that experts say will make the MLB more valuable.

The debut of a one-game, wild-card playoff this season in each league between teams with the best records that are not division winners is no accident.

“What they’ve essentially created is a two-day festival of Game 7, because it’s win-or-go-home,” said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant. “You’re leading into the playoffs with a new package of dramatic telecasts. That as a package is very [sell-able] to both incumbent networks and new networks.

“What this package does is add to the competitiveness and the likelihood that revenues are going to substantially increase for MLB going forward once the media deals are said and done.”

Reuters in October quoted analysts as predicting that MLB might see a 10 percent increase on the $900 million the league has in national TV rights deals currently. Those predictions didn’t include the expanded postseason.

Baseball’s deals with the three networks were struck in 2005-06, before NBC Sports launched its national network, before Turner joined with CBS to win the NCAA men’s basketball broadcast rights, before word came that FOX Sports is planning a national network, and before digital media considerations became such a major factor in rights negotiations.

MLB games are spread all over channel lineups, depending on regional network rights, the day of the week and whether games are regular or post-season:

• Turner-owned TBS has exclusive rights to the Division Series in both leagues, the American League Championship Series in even years, the National League Championship Series in odd years, and all tie-breaking play-in games. In addition, TBS has rights to a Sunday afternoon Game of the Week.

• ESPN has rights for Sunday Night Baseball, Monday Night Baseball, Wednesday Night Baseball and Baseball Tonight.

• FOX has rights for the World Series, All-Star Game, odd-year ALCS matchups and the even-year NLCS matchups. In addition, FOX carries a regional Saturday Game of the Week for all 26 weeks of the season.

According to SportsBusiness Daily, in 2011, MLB regular-season game audiences drew mixed ratings. FOX ratings were flat from the year prior; ESPN ratings were about 7 percent higher on Sunday Night Baseball, and 4.5 percent for all of the regular season; and TBS was flat year-to-year.

Josh Krulewitz, ESPN vice president of communications, declined to offer details about the network’s plans while issuing the following statement: "ESPN has been presenting extensive MLB coverage for many years, and we look forward to productive discussions with the league about our future together."

Turner was successful in getting the rights to playoffs in the last negotiations. A Turner spokesman declined specific comment but said in a statement: “We have been partners with MLB for more than 35 years and value our long-standing relationship with the League. We continue to have productive conversations with MLB on how to enhance and build upon the league’s new playoff format and capitalize on the continuing popularity of baseball, its teams and players.”

FOX vice president of communications Lou D’Ermilio said the network is interested in the additional playoff games. “We’ve got a great, longstanding relationship with MLB, and if these playoffs games become available, we’d be very interested in exploring the possibility of presenting them on a FOX outlet.”

Giving MLB additional leverage is the emergence of NBC Sports as a likely bidder. Network officials there did not respond to requests for comment.

Two other factors will be significant in this round of bidding: digital broadcast rights and cable pairings, including partnerships with the MLB Network.

TV Everywhere is especially an issue when it comes to ESPN’s negotiations. ESPN has TV Everywhere deals with companies that represent about 40 percent of the country’s pay-TV subscribers. In addition, ESPN has TV Everywhere deals with every sports league with which it is currently under contract.

“At ESPN, we’ve been on this for eight years to buy cross-platform rights,” ESPN vice president of sales and marketing Sean Bratches said at an industry conference last year. “This is really important to us, and I think it’s fundamental to our brand.”

One major consideration is that balancing of MLB’s own subscription service, MLB.TV, with its broadcast bidders. SportsBusiness Journal says that MLB brings in more than $500 million through MLB Advanced Media, which runs MLB.TV and the popular MLB At Bat mobile app.

In the past, MLB has negotiated digital rights deals separate from television rights deals and has limited the content that can be streamed.

MLB also will have to determine which networks might work best with its own MLB Network. Berke said the MLB Network makes this round of negotiations very different from those in the past.

“They can serve as an outlet for one or more of these packages,” he said. “For the new two-day series, it might be worthwhile to put it on MLB Network. In order to profit, they’d raise [cable] subscriber fees substantially. If you’re FOX or Turner, you’re bidding against Baseball, essentially.”

For Major League Baseball, it all looks positive.