Baseball’s Long, Hot Summer

Heated battle for sports deal waits as NBC, Turner prepare to face off for MLB's national TV rights

Negotiations for Major League Baseball’s national TV rights deals are likely to be the knottiest in sports media history, as fundamental pricing agreements will be complicated by a host of thorny issues. Renewed interest from a former network partner and a bifurcated linear/digital rights structure could keep baseball at the table throughout the summer. The only certainty is that the cost of doing business with America’s pastime almost certainly will soar.

MLB’s network partners (Fox, ESPN and Turner) last month saw their respective exclusive negotiating windows slam shut, letting NBC make its first official overture to baseball in more than a decade. The world was a simpler place when NBC’s last MLB contract expired in 2000—for one thing, NBC was the top-rated network on the tube; for another, it had a lot fewer mouths to feed. And while baseball isn’t going to deliver ER-type ratings, that’s not really the point. Instead, sources said NBC is looking at a package to shore up its NBC Sports Network.

Since the merger with Comcast, NBC has demonstrated its willingness to outspend its rivals for big-time sports. Last June, the company plunked down $4.38 billion on an Olympics package that extends from Sochi, Russia, in 2014 through the as-yet-unclaimed 2020 Summer Games. Two months earlier, it spent $1.9 billion on a 10-year NHL deal. That said, NBC also failed to secure two other packages for its cable net, losing the Wimbledon rights in a bidding war with ESPN and getting outflanked by a joint ESPN-Fox effort in its attempt at securing the Pac-12 rights.

Baseball’s current trio of media deals expire at the end of the 2013 season. All told, the league takes in $711.7 million per year from its national partners. ESPN pays $306 million for its Sunday Night Baseball package; Fox invests $257.1 million for its regular-season Saturday games, plus the exclusive rights to the All-Star Game and World Series; and Turner pays $148.6 million for a showcase that derives most of its value from the American League and National League Division Series, alternating League Championship Series, and the two new single-game elimination Wild Card Playoffs.

MLB’s three legacy partners confirmed they are in negotiations with the league. NBC didn’t confirm any official talks.

NBC’s interest aside, digital rights add another layer of complexity. MLB is the only major sports franchise that negotiates its digital and TV rights separately, the former being controlled by the league’s $2 billion stand-alone unit, MLB Advanced Media.