ESPN Renews MLB Rights Deal Through 2021

Network’s investment in baseball doubles to $5.35 billion

As the Book of Revelations would have it, 666 is the number of the beast. Tack six zeroes on the end and it’s also the annual fee ESPN will pay for the rights to continue airing Major League Baseball games.

According to a number of sources, ESPN has clinched a new eight-year pact with MLB, effectively doubling the $2.65 billion investment it made with its current agreement. Given the estimated value of the new contract ($5.35 billion) and the duration (the deal expires in 2021), the annual rights fee comes to a tidy $666 million.

Along with its ongoing Sunday Night Baseball exclusivity, ESPN will continue to air games on Mondays and Wednesdays. And while the 2005-13 deal did not include any postgame air rights, the new pact includes one Wild Card game and the rights to any potential regular-season tie-breaker games.

As one would expect given a deal of this magnitude, the new rights package includes everything from peanuts to Cracker Jack: linear TV, digital, international and radio. ESPN also has secured the rights to develop a greater volume of shoulder programming (highlights, anthology content); moreover, in keeping with its aggressive digital strategy, look for Bristol to roll out a host of exclusive MLB material for tablet devices, smartphones and laptop/desktop computers.

All told, ESPN will have increased its live-game coverage by a factor of 15 percent—from 78 to as many as 90 contests per season. Naturally, a boost in baseball tonnage translates to a greater load of in-game inventory.

ESPN has televised MLB games since April 1990. The network invested a grand total of $400 million for its first four-year rights package.

Meanwhile, as ESPN closes out its second blockbuster rights deal in a year—in September, the sports giant re-upped with the NFL in an eight-year, $15.5 billion pact—baseball’s other media partners are still negotiating the terms of their own renewals. Valued at $257 million per season, Fox’s current broadcasting deal expires at the end of the 2013 campaign. (Fox is looking to retain the most high-profile MLB properties, a roster that includes the All-Star Game, a League Championship Series and the World Series.)

Turner Sports’ TBS is also negotiating, although the cable network is not as far along in the process as is Fox. Sources said the broadcaster could finalize its renewal before the Labor Day holiday weekend.

TBS’ eight-year deal also expires next year. The Turner net pays an annual fee of $148.6 million for its package of non-exclusive Sunday afternoon games and the playoff suite (the American League and National League Division Series and alternating AL/NL League Championship Series).

While the legacy partners work to get their respective deals done, another network is looking to get back into the game after a 12-year absence. Sources said NBC continues to assess an MLB 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 NBC Sports 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.