The Washington Examiner

Sports Commentary

Lucrative cable deal a must for Nats

Washington has its baseball franchise, but will the team have a cable TV deal in the Washington market anytime soon? The answer is yes, but what kind of deal will it be? A lucrative local cable TV contract bringing in at least $30 million annually is an absolute essential for the Nationals.

There is a formula to have a financially successful franchise. An owner needs the support of local government; a large corporate base to buy big-ticket items such as luxury boxes and club seating, and big cable TV money. After that comes marketing partnerships and way down on the list are rank and file fans.

Cable TV monies separate the haves and the have-nots in baseball. The Yankees and Red Sox own their own regional sports networks and because of that can spend a huge amount of money for players. The Mets will roll out a cable network in 2006. The Chicago Cubs have formed a regional network with Comcast, the White Sox, the Bulls and Blackhawks. The Houston Astros and Rockets intend to form a regional network next year. An Astros-Rockets network will bring more money to those teams, but it will pale in comparison to the big markets of New York, Chicago and Boston/New England.

Washington has obstacles to overcome to get the type of money needed to keep up with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Cubs and White Sox. The Nationals need an owner, not Bud Selig, to talk to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts about cable TV rights.

Roberts can make or break the Nationals franchise.

When Robert Johnson was thinking of pursuing a Washington baseball franchise, he put forth an idea that a Washington team needed to form its own network to be successful. The Nationals could make more money by owning a network, but would Roberts say no to the competition? After all, Comcast controls both the cable systems and the regional sports network in the Mid-Atlantic. Charles Dolan, who owns Cablevision franchises in the New York area, refused to put the Yankees network on his systems. The dispute ended up in court and before the New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and has been temporarily resolved.

Baseball could form a Nationals/Orioles regional network but does Baltimore owner Peter Angelos want that? He opposed the Expos move into what he believed was his territory. The Cubs and White Sox own the Chicago network so there is a precedent with Roberts as a partner. Would Roberts just buy Nationals rights and put them on the Comcast Mid-Atlantic Network?

The Nationals need a lot of cable TV money to be successful. Cable money, not fans, will determine just how successful the Nationals will be. A bad deal will doom the franchise, putting it into the same category as those that are somewhat competitive because they can develop players but ultimately fail because they can’t afford to keep them.

That’s how high the cable stakes are for the Nationals.

By: Evan Weiner

Evan Weiner is a national radio commentator on “The Business of Sports.”

Leave a Reply