Cable helps Mets reach for the stars

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Evan Weiner is a commentator on the business of sports.

‘Meet the Mets, Meet the Mets!” should be the name of a new television series, because the New York Metropolitans are hotter than a reality TV show – especially when you consider what’s going on behind the scenes.

As everybody knows, when you produce a TV show, you gotta have stars, which is why the Mets have shelled out almost $200 million to bring in Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and re-up Kris Benson, or rather his wife Anna, a popular Howard Stern guest. (Last December she was voted FHM magazine’s sexiest baseball wife.) How convenient that Anna Benson also wants to be the star of her own reality-TV series.

The Mets ceased being just an overpriced baseball team last spring when owner Fred Wilpon terminated his cable-TV contract with Charles Dolan and Cablevision’s Madison Square Garden Network and decided to put together his own deal. In 2006, Wilpon, along with Time Warner and Comcast, will debut a Mets regional sports network.

Ironically, this year Dolan will be the beneficiary of the Mets’ hiring Martinez and Beltran, because his network figures to pick up a significant number of viewers – at least early in the season – and he can raise his advertising rates accordingly.

Dolan won’t get any additional fees from cable subscribers. He gets that money whether one person or 500,000 people watch Mets games on MSG or Fox Sports New York. It doesn’t matter because the Federal Communications Commission and Congress won’t let cable subscribers choose what channels they do or don’t want – and that won’t change in George W. Bush’s second term.

Cable TV makes strange bedfellows because Wilpon’s new television partners are involved with rival baseball teams. Time Warner owns the Atlanta Braves, the Mets’ National League East nemesis, while Comcast Cable is TV partners with the Philadelphia Phillies, another perennial competitor. Does that mean that Time Warner, which now has a significant interest in the Mets, wouldn’t mind seeing the Braves’ domination finally end? After all, the better the Mets are, the more advertising money flows into Time Warner’s wallets.

Comcast doesn’t own the Phillies – it just cablecasts some of their games – but it is a full partner with the Tribune Company’s Chicago Cubs, the White Sox, the Bulls and the Blackhawks in a Chicago regional sports network. What would be better for Comcast’s coffers? A stronger Mets team, a winning Cubs team or a tougher Phillies team?

At least George Steinbrenner doesn’t have that problem with the YES Network. He has sole star power all right, but he only has distribution partnerships with Comcast and Time Warner. Still, that brings up an interesting question. What if Steinbrenner’s costs become out of line for Comcast and Time Warner and the two companies, as owners of the new Mets network, decide to pull Steinbrenner off their systems? That would kill his golden goose and probably threaten the Yankees’ dominance.

Oh, what a tangled web.

These days Major League Baseball is less about sports and more like a series of complex business transactions. Take New York’s second or third most compelling team (depending on who you root for), the Boston Red Sox. The Sox, partly owned by The New York Times, are also in the cable-TV business, thanks to the Red Sox New England Sports Network, one of Comcast’s offerings in New England.

As the Mets are about ready to enter the stratosphere, Fred Wilpon will join George Steinbrenner in acting like a New York baseball owner with money to spend. The Mets organization needs big names, big stars, to move its product in this media market – something Steinbrenner learned a long time ago.

So, life won’t get any easier for small-market baseball franchises like Kris Benson’s old team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. They will still have to find talented young (cheap) players, develop them and hope they can hang onto them for five years before trading them to teams like the Yankees and Mets for future prospects. And, if you are Steinbrenner and Wilpon, who needs scouting? They have cable TV and can buy just about any player they want. Especially if they need to give their “reality baseball show” a boost.

Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.

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