The deal had been reported for weeks as exclusive, meaning that only subscribers of the DirecTV satellite service would be able to see the 60 or so out-of-town games each week without resorting to streaming video on MLB.tv. But baseball left the door open Thursday for "incumbents," meaning those already carrying Extra Innings -- the Dish satellite network and cable companies through their In Demand network -- to match the DirecTV offer and continue to carry the package.
That move seems to have come in response to political pressure from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and others. Kerry wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to investigate the reported $700 million, seven-year exclusive MLB-DirecTV deal, saying it would shut many baseball fans out.
Sen Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also made noises about looking into whether the deal constituted an antitrust violation, though he admitted, "I don't think I'll be able to stop it." Baseball has been all or mostly exempt from antitrust laws for nearly a century.
"In keeping with MLB's desire to provide as much MLB programming to as many baseball fans as possible," Thursday's press release read, "MLB and DirecTV have agreed to include a provision that allows MLB Extra Innings to be offered to other incumbents -- In Demand and Dish Network -- at consistent rates and carriage requirements with a deal to be concluded before the baseball season begins. The provision also requires the incumbents to agree to carriage rights to the MLB Channel proportionally equivalent to DIRECTV's commitment."
That innocuous-sounding last sentence contains the sticking point to the deal. DirecTV has agreed to carry the MLB Channel on its basic tier starting in 2009, rather than on a sports tier. DirecTV will pay a lot less for a non-exclusive package if the cable companies and Dish sign up, but they've dug in their heels about not carrying niche sports channels on the basic tier, which is why the NFL has been battling cable companies lately too.
The baseball season begins April 1, so In Demand and Dish have till the end of the month to decide what to do, though it sounds like they've already decided.
"It's not in the best interest of consumers," Kathie Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Dish owner EchoStar Communications, told the Denver Post. "It's forcing sports to consumers" and is "not consistent with our advocacy for choice, or a la carte networks."
Robert Jacobson, CEO of In Demand, blasted the deal in a statement.
"Major League Baseball has chosen to cut a de facto exclusive deal," he said, "including conditions for carriage that MLB and DirecTV designed to be impossible for cable and Dish to meet."
Actually, what baseball has done, if you'll indulge a mixed sporting metaphor, is hit a brilliant volley, putting the ball squarely in the court of In Demand and Dish. In the space of one paragraph, MLB has turned them from victims to villains if they don't go along.
Until Thursday, opponents of the deal -- including this column but especially the cable companies and Dish -- had been whining that MLB was the bad guy, denying hardworking, puppy-loving baseball fans their precious out-of-town games in the venal pursuit of a few bucks.
So now baseball says, "OK, In Demand and Dish, if you're going to crusade for the inalienable right of baseball fans to be able to see their national game as much as they ever have, match DirecTV's offer and you'll get your wish."
And all of a sudden it's not about the inalienable rights of baseball fans anymore, is it? It's about the cable companies and the Dish Network not liking the terms of the deal. Who's keeping baseball fans who can't or don't want to sign up for DirecTV from getting Extra Innings now?
It's one thing for Major League Baseball to make a less-than-optimal deal to ensure that all baseball fans have access to Extra Innings, In Demand and the Dish Network seem to be saying. It's quite another for us to do so.
Well played, MLB. Now, instead of shutting fans out for the few extra million dollars of an exclusive deal, baseball is simply saying, "Here's the best offer so far. Match it and you can come on board."
Why should baseball accept less? To protect the profits of the cable companies and the Dish Network? Looks like there are some new villains in town. They have three weeks to make their move.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Ironically, they're called stickers [PERMALINK]
Nevada guard Kyle Shiloh will likely miss Friday's WAC tournament semifinal against Utah State and may be out for the rest of the postseason after pulling his hamstring in a win over Idaho Thursday. Nevada is a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Shiloh was injured in the second half when he slipped on a WAC logo sticker on the floor of the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, N.M.
"Let that be a national statement for those stupid stickers they put on the court," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "He's probably done for the year. Let that be a statement that if you put those stickers on the floor, you put kids at risk."
It has always amazed me how seldom all those stickers, for conferences and sponsors, come into play, not just as a hazard, but as a variation in the surface of the floor.
But if you're looking for some reform to come out of this mishap, good luck. Advertising stickers on the hardwood will be around when college basketball is being played by androids.
Previous column: Curt Schilling's new blog
- - - - - - - - - - - -