Dodgers Could Be Last Team To Strike Gold With Local TV Deal

It seems everyone is writing about the sports programming bubble, wondering whether it’s here and when it will burst. Just Google “sports TV bubble” and you’ll find this story from the New York Times in January, and these from FOX and ESPN in March. But it’s not just this year. Forbes warned of a sports TV bubble in late 2011 and followed up in early 2013 declaring that the bubble existed and was about to pop.

What is the sports TV bubble anyway? It’s the hyper-inflated prices sports networks, cable and satellite companies, and consumers pay to produce, show, and watch live sporting events. Live sports means no fast-forwarding through commercials on the DVR. Advertisers pump gobs of money into the system to place their products in front of an engaged 18- to-35-year-old male audience.  Target consumers are valuable. They make sports programming valuable. Networks pay billions to broadcast sports to those consumers but everyone — not just sports fans — foot the bill.

How did we get here? I touched on these issues in this post in May, when Senator John McCain introduced a bill that would eliminate regulatory barriers to a la carte programming by cable and satellite companies:

Here’s the example Senator McCain used: Disney owns ABC, Disney Network and ESPN. If a cable or satellite operator wants to offer ESPN to its customers, it must purchase and pay for all Disney-related programming, and vice versa. The cable or satellite company then has no choice but to offer ESPN and Disney Network as a bundle, even if some customers only want ESPN and others only want Disney. McCain’s proposed legislation would change that.

ESPN charges cable and satellite companies $4.69 each month to carry the network. When some consumers want ESPN and others want Disney, the cable or satellite company has no choice but to pay the $4.69 for ESPN and whatever the carriage fee is for Disney, and pass those costs onto their customers. If a la carte programming takes hold, then cable and satellite companies will purchase ESPN only for those customers who want the World Wide Leader. That means less money to ESPN in the short term. And it may force ESPN to raise its industry-leading carriage fee even higher. That may cause additional consumers to fall away, based on cost. In other words, unbundled programming will test how elastic the demand is for ESPN and other sports networks.

Without a la carte programming, consumers who want any cable or satellite programming are forced to pay for channels they don’t want at ever increasing prices. Patrick Hruby summed it up well several weeks ago at Sports on Earth.

This is the heart of the Sports Cable Bubble: Tens of millions of pay television viewers spending what Thompson estimates is at least $100 a year on sports programming they have no intention of ever watching, pumping billions into games enjoyed by others, enriching networks, leagues, teams and athletes all the while.

Hruby went on to note that surveys attempting to quantify sports-watching consumers are all over the map:

The exact number of non-sports fans is difficult to peg: A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 43 percent of Americans won’t cancel cable and satellite television simply because of live sports, which also suggests that the majority of the country could be perfectly happy not paying for ESPN; industry analyst David Bank told Bloomberg Businessweek that 80 percent of basic-cable customers would decline to pay for sports if given a choice; Forbes writer Alan McGlade figures that no more than 10 million homes are regular ESPN viewers, about 10 percent of the total pay TV market.)

What does any of this have to do with the local TV deals for MLB teams?

Baseball is live sports programming, 162 games a season. Just like with national sports broadcasts, advertisers want to have their products in front of a baseball-watching audience who can’t skip through the commercials. Regional sports networks want that expected ad revenue, so they bid billions for the right to broadcast the local team’s games for a long, long time.

But ad revenue is only a part of the equation. Regional sports networks charge a carriage fee to cable and satellite companies, just like ESPN does. And while RSNs don’t often have non-sports programming to bundle with their sports offerings, they have the leverage of being the only game in town for fans who want to watch the local sports teams.

Or do they?

Comcast launched CSN Houston last year in a joint venture with the Astros and the NBA’s Rockets. The Astros own 45% of the new network and will receive $80 million per year for 20 years. But three of Houston’s cable and satellite companies have refused to pay the $3.40 carriage fees CSN Houston wants to charge per customer. That’s left 60% of the Houston area without access to Astros and Rockets games. In San Diego, 40% of cable and satellite customers don’t have access to Padres games because Time Warner Cable has refused to carry pay the carriage fee Fox Sports San Diego charges.

What’s going on?

Cable and satellite companies have stepped up their efforts to pin point exactly who is watching local sports on TV, when, and for how long, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal (subscriber only).

The data have given them a better sense for how often individual customers tune into home-team games, and for how long. They have created algorithms to gauge this level of “engagement,” and are now using the findings to make decisions about whether to add sports networks and pass on the fees to all subscribers.

According to the Journal, AT&T U-verse used this information in deciding not to offer CSN Houston.

The question now is whether RSNs will start gathering similar kinds of information in deciding how much to bid for teams’ broadcast rights. Hard to imagine they won’t, if they want to avoid finding themselves in the same situation as CSN Houston and Fox Sports San Diego.

This shifting landscape is likely to affect those teams with local TV rights deals expiring in the next few years. The Rockies’ contract with Root Sports expires after the 2014 season, the Phillies’ deal with CSN Philadelphia and the Diamondbacks’ deal with Fox Sports Arizona expire after the 2015 season, and the Reds’ deal with Fox Sports Ohio expires after the 2016 season.

Should the Phillies be worried? Perhaps. Sports Business Journal (subscriber only) reported last week that ratings for Phillies games on CSN Philadelphia through the first half of the season have dropped 36% from 2012. And while Philadelphia is the fourth-largest TV market in the country (after New York Los Angeles, and Chicago), the Phillies sit outside the Top 5 MLB teams in average TV ratings and average audience size. (Top 5 in ratings are the Tigers, Cardinals, Reds, Red Sox, and Pirates. Top 5 in audience size are the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Mets, and Dodgers).

For now, it’s wait and see.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In November, we published information on each MLB team’s local TV contract. Since then, several teams have negotiated new deals, so it seems like a good time to update that information. The information on the below chart was collected from publicly-available sources.


Team RSN Avg. Annual Rights Fee Equity Stake Expiration Year
Arizona Diamonbacks FS Arizona $31 million 2015
Atlanta Braves FS Sports South/Sports South $20-$30 million 2031
Baltimore Orioles MASN $29 million 87% N/A
Boston Red Sox NESN $60 million 80% N/A
Chicago Cubs CSN Chicago/WGN $50 million (combined) 20% CSN Chicago WGN: 2014/CSN: 2019
Chicago White Sox CSN Chicago $45.5 million 40% N/A
Cincinnati Reds FS Ohio $30 million 2016
Cleveland Indians FS Ohio $40 million 2022
Colorado Rockies Root Rocky Mountain $20 million 2014
Detroit Tigers FS Detroit $40 million 2017
Houston Astros CSN Houston $80 million 45% 2032
Kansas City Royals FS Kansas City $20 million 2019
Los Angeles Angels FS West $150 million 25% 2032
Los Angeles Dodgers SportsNet LA $340 million 2038
Miami Marlins FS Florida $18 million N/A
Milwaukee Brewers FS Wisconsin $20 million 2019
Minnesota Twins FS North $29 million N/A
New York Mets SNY $65 million (inc. over time) 65% 2030
New York Yankees YES $90 million (inc. over time) 34% 2042
Oakland A’s CSN California $43-$48 million 2029 (opt-out after 2023)
Philadelphia Phillies CSN Philadelphia $35 million 2015
Pittsburgh Pirates Root Pittsburgh $18 million 2019
San Diego Padres FS San Diego $60 million 20% 2031
San Francisco Giants CSN Bay Area $30 million 35% 2032
Seattle Mariners Root Northwest $115 million more than 50% 2030
St. Louis Cardinals FS Midwest $25-28 million 2019
Tampa Bay Rays SunSports $20 million 2016
Texas Rangers FS Southwest $150 million 10% 2034
Toronto Blue Jays Rogers Sportsnet $36 million N/A
Washington Nationals MASN $29 million 13% N/A


Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and You can find her work at and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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10 years ago

It would be interesting to see ‘current year’ fee or maybe a ‘guaranteed money’ column in addition to the estimated over the life of the contract fee. The Dodgers, for instance, have a contract which is estimated to be worth $8B through 2038 so $8B/25 ~ $340M. But they are getting something like $130M this year. In their case only some of the future money is guaranteed; if a sports tv bubble pops their SportsNetLA network would probably not take in anything like $8 billion.

10 years ago
Reply to  Iron

TWC’s contract with the Dodgers guarantees revenue of $5 for every pay TV household in the Dodgers’ TV market. So the $8 billion over 25 years is actually the floor of the deal. If revenue is higher than expected the deal could be worth substantially more than $8 billion.

10 years ago
Reply to  CH

And when cable is replaced by streaming on demand what does that do to the deal? Or technology X. The ‘floor’ of real estate deals 5 years ago or dotcom investments ten years ago was also thought to be quite high. That’s what a bubble is.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jason

Bubbles have winners and losers. Those problems that you mention are Time Warner’s problems.

If this is a bubble and we are at the peak then the Dodgers are a winner and Time Warner is a loser. It isn’t the Dodgers’ problem if this deal loses money for Time Warner– unless you think this deal is going to bankrupt Time Warner.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jason

“TWC’s contract with the Dodgers guarantees revenue of $5 for every pay TV household in the Dodgers’ TV market”.

I think you are continuing to fail to see that in 2038 ‘television’ itself may very likely not resemble 2013. What does that contract mean if Time Warner has largely become an ISP and no longer broadcasts content via ‘channels’ as in the current model? This is just one of many scenarios that would render the aforestated guarantee meaningless without even bringing in the possibility of a Time Warner bankruptcy. A lot can happen in the technology industry in 25 years. 25 years ago the internet did not even exist.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jason

I also point out $5/ viewer in Dodgers TV market is much less than $340M/year (total $8B over 25 years). That would assume 68 million subscribers in the Dodgers viewing area. There are currently only 84 million pay TV subscribers in the entire USA. A very generous footprint for the Dodger’s TV market puts the floor more like $34M/year.