Comcast-Time Warner Cable: RSNs In Play

Comcast’s proposed $45.2 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable would give the expanded company a leading cable presence in 19 of the nation’s top 20 DMAs. The union wouldn’t have that profound of an effect on the regional sports network realm, but the merger’s impact will be felt in the nation’s two largest markets, and perhaps down the road as other teams’ rights become available.

In the short term, if the deal receives the federal government’s blessing, NBC Regional Sports Networks’ current 10-channel roster, with additions in LA, will soon have RSNs in nine of the top 10 markets, save for Dallas-Ft. Worth.

Time Warner Cable, which has 14 small sports channels that present local high school and college fare to varying extents, has not emerged as a significant RSN player until recently. Over the years, executive management wasn't a big sports proponent. That began to change in the middle of the last decade, when the late Fred Dressler, the MSO’s longtime programming chief, became instrumental in establishing SportsNet New York, the cable home of the New York Mets.

TWC owns about 27% of SNY, while Comcast, which operates and manages the service, holding 8%. Sterling Entertainment Enterprises, a unit tied to Mets ownership, controls the RSN with its 65% stake. Given the Wilpon family’s track record of late, some fans of the Amazins’ might hope that Brian Roberts would also play white knight on the diamond and move into an ownership position with the club. Not sure that’s in the cards: Comcast-Spectacor, which continues to own the NHL Philadelphia Flyers, sold the NBA Philadelphia 76ers in 2011.

As a means of controlling costs, TWC, led by Dressler disciple Melinda Witmer, jumped into the RSN game in Los Angeles. TWC grabbed the rights to the Los Angeles Lakers from Fox Sports in a 20-year, $3 billion deal and established two RSNs, including the nation’s only dedicated Spanish-language service, around the famed NBA club. Both are fully distributed -- sans Dish Network -- in the team’s TV territory and will give NBC Regional Sports a major presence in the LA sports arena.

That roster would be deepened by inheritance of the Dodgers’ service. Time Warner Cable is helping to manage, program and distribute SportsNet LA and will foot the affiliate bill for the team-owned service, even if others don’t sign up. Seeking a monthly sub fee in the $5 range,  SportsNet LA throws out its first pitch on Feb. 25 as the start of the 2014 MLB season is now some six weeks away. There’s a lot of work ahead for Time Warner Cable Sports head David Rone and his team in the interim.

From a geographical perspective, a combined Comcast-TWC ultimately could prove beneficial to CSN Houston – should the beleaguered network survive. Home to MLB’s Astros and the NBA’s Rockets, the RSN, which recently began operating under chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the wake of its inability to meet its rights obligations owing to distribution that doesn’t extend much past Comcast, would add one of its major MPVD holdouts under the union. Time Warner Cable counts some 1.4 million customers in the great state of Texas, a total that couldn’t really be music to the ears of Astros owners Jim Crane, who wants to take the club’s media rights and play TV elsewhere.

Applying the Comcast SportNet playbook of operating in the markets where its owner has a strong presence – with or without an equity position in the RSN by the area’s pro team – changes could be afoot in the years ahead in DMAs, where TWC is the top cable provider.  While Fox and other RSN operators have long-term rights deals in most places, some clubs like MLB’s Cincinnati Reds will see their contract with FS Ohio expire after the 2016 season. Ohio is Time Warner Cable country.

So, too, is Dallas, where the NBA Mavericks’ contract concludes after the 2017-18 season. Owner Mark Cuban has talked in the past about exploring all options, including a potential play with TWC.

This says nothing about areas where Comcast is already the cable kingpin like in Washington-Baltimore, where the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals situation remains unresolved with MASN.

Nationally, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are already equity partners in MLB Network and charter distributors of the Pac 12 suite of networks. 

ESPN’s pursuit of carriage for the SEC Network, which kicks off in August, could also be impacted within the conference’s 11-state footprint and beyond. As mentioned, TWC is a major presence in Texas (A&M), the predominant cable operator in South Carolina (Gamecocks) and has a sizable presence in Kentucky (Wildcats), as well as smaller player in Missouri (Tigers) and Alabama (Crimson Tide). Comcast maps quite closely to the rest of the conference’s territory.