Game Time: Let’s Play Ball

Regional sports nets are already hitting sales home runs as Major League Baseball's new season stirs

It may be one of the hoariest clichés associated with a sport that’s already lousy with them, but it’s hard to find fault in the old saw that hope springs eternal during Major League Baseball’s spring training. For players and fans, it’s a time of promise—and for regional sports networks, it’s time to rake in some serious dough.

Not to dispel baseball’s Field of Dreams romanticism, but RSNs are serious business. The local sports chieftains have become so powerful that more than one high-ranking cable operator has griped about not being able to afford the cost of carrying them. Meanwhile, an improving advertising marketplace has dollars piling up on the other side of the ledger.

The shining exemplar of the RSN model is the 10-year-old YES Network. The most profitable RSN in the country, YES last year took in roughly $502.3 million in affiliate revenue alone. It also generated the highest ad sales tally—$68.7 million, according to SNL Kagan.

The cleanup hitter that powers the YES lineup is baseball’s most valuable franchise, the New York Yankees. Despite sharing the DMA with the Mets and SportsNet NY, YES’ 2011 Yankees broadcasts were the most-watched on any RSN, averaging 319,000 homes per game.

With three weeks to go before opening day, YES’ Yankees inventory is 60 percent sold out. “The market is really strong, and we’re seeing a huge response from automotive,” said Howard Levinson, svp of advertising sales at YES. “A lot of carmakers that raised their budgets in the wake of the tsunami have kept their spend just as high. And the companies that were directly affected by the disaster are back.”

Tri-State Ford is back as the presenting sponsor of YES’ pregame show, and Audi will again step up to the plate with Yankees Batting Practice Today. Other returning clients include W.B. Mason, Toyota, Lexus and Chevrolet. Rates are up in the low double digits versus last season’s performance.

Crosstown rival the Mets will this year celebrate its 50th anniversary, and while nostalgia may be a safer route than facing an uncertain present, the team’s RSN remains in top form.

In its sixth year of operation, SNY pulled in $40.5 million in ad sales revenue and $428.4 million in affiliate fees. While overall deliveries for Mets games were down 19 percent, SNY is enjoying a balmy spring, signing on new clients like Buffalo Wild Wings and landing W.B. Mason as its postgame sponsor.

“We’ve had a half-dozen new business hits so far, and we’re really happy with where we are,” said Brian Erdlen, chief revenue officer for the Mets and SportsNet NY.

While YES is unaffiliated with Yankee Stadium, SNY and Citi Field are joined at the hip. “We not only have the luxury of dipping into the New York spot market, but we also have a direct line to the Mets’ corporate sponsors,” Erdlen said. “It’s one-stop shopping—it’s not a situation where the rights holder and the team are competing with each other.”