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Wednesday, March 27, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Baseball On TV -- FOX Bid Helps Put Baseball Back On Track

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Failure is difficult to confront, especially when it is played out on a national stage.

The Baseball Network, an ill-fated, some would say ill-conceived, experiment, seemed doomed from the start. It was an uneasy two-year marriage among Major League Baseball and two networks, ABC and NBC. Menage a mess.

Baseball basically brought the TV rights in-house, selling the time while cozying up with sponsors and TV executives. But there was a huge dropoff in per-team revenues, promotion of the game and its players was negligible, and the traditional Saturday "Game of the Week" was eliminated.

Worst of all, postseason games for the first time were not televised nationally, but regionally instead. Fans without satellite dishes were disenfranchised and disgusted.

"It was tragic for the baseball fan," said Steve Risser, senior vice president of programming for ESPN, which has a separate contract with Major League Baseball.

NBC executives were so disillusioned they wanted out after last season and vowed not to sign another baseball deal this century.

"Well, I helped create it. I gave birth to it," said Bill Giles, Philadelphia Phillies president and longtime chairman of baseball's Television Committee.

"It had some flaws from the beginning, but it was the best option at the time. The concept of baseball selling ad time and tying in sponsorship was a good idea. It was working . . . until the strike."

Whether it was working is a matter of short debate, but there is no question the Aug. 12, 1994 player walkout and subsequent cancellation of the World Series had a huge negative impact.

When the work stoppage lingered the following spring and the owners toyed with replacement ball, the television marriage, if not the game, clearly was coming apart.

Baseball, bruised, battered and still without a labor agreement, last November welcomed any new TV bids or ideas.

Industry analysts believed owners were crazy if they thought they could approach another $1.1 billion deal such as CBS provided from 1990-93.

Crazy like a Fox.

"It is in a deficit position to begin with, so it needed to build credibility," Brian Murphy, who produces the Sports Marketing Letter in Westport, Conn., said of the Fox Network.

It took $750 million to construct, but it seems Rupert Murdoch's fledgling Fox Network already is baseball's rookie of the year.

Fox weighed all four paws into last fall's five-year, four-way, $1.7 billion TV package. It put up $565 million to televise the World Series this season, in 1998 and 2000.

It also receives the 1997, 1999 All-Star Games, half the league championship series and five division playoff games each year (four in prime time, one Saturday afternoon). It will bring back the "Saturday Game of the Week" beginning June 1, with the Boston-Seattle game as one of four regional telecasts.

In addition, Murdoch paid another $172 million for a four-year deal to show two games per week on the fX cable network beginning next season. fX is designed to rival ESPN.

Also putting up a combined $1 billion were ESPN and prodigal son NBC. NBC will televise two World Series (1997, 1999), three All-Star Games (1996, 1998 and 2000), and half the league championship series. It also bought the rights to the remaining division playoff games, choosing to televise three in prime time while selling the remainder to ESPN.

ESPN will continue with its Sunday-Wednesday regional telecasts as well as its nightly "Baseball Tonight" program. It also will show all division games not shown on Fox or NBC.

Baseball is back in Business, with a capital `B.' That's `B' as in billion. How did this happen?

"It's a function of the marketplace," Risser said. "It's amazing what Fox has done. They've been very aggressive in sports. They're sitting there now with three of the four major sports, baseball, the NFL and the NHL."

Giles said that Fox "was very aggressive. They wanted to come in and bid a high market number."

Giles likes the idea of the national Saturday game returning, along with Fox's promotional ideas. The network has filmed 42 players, including Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, to use as generally humorous lead-ins.

Ed Goren, who spent 28 years at CBS before becoming Fox's executive director of sports, said, "We like the challenge.

"The game is a lot healthier than people would have you believe," he said. "It's funny people say the game is too long or too slow. Look at last year's Seattle-New York series. Were those games too long or too slow? They were marvelous."

He added that for much of this century baseball executives were content to let the game and its traditions sell itself.

"We will honor its past but we will celebrate its present," Goren added.

The networks, particularly Fox, will not make money on the deal. In fact, Fox might not regain half of its investment. But now it does have another vehicle it hopes to drive into America's living rooms.

"Baseball is a long-term investment," Murphy added. "The further we get from the strike, and if there are no more strikes, it might start to look like a wise investment."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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