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Chicago Teams Opt Out of Fox Sports Deal

Chicago's regional sports landscape was thrown a curveball last week, when four professional teams said they intend to pull their games from Fox Sports Chicago as of September 2004.

It's possible they'll team with locally dominant MSO Comcast Corp. on a new regional service.

But Fox Sports Chicago vowed to remain afloat despite the crippling loss of Chicago Bulls, White Sox, Cubs and Blackhawks games.

The teams notified Fox Sports Chicago last week they'd exercise an out clause to exit their existing agreement — which runs through 2009 — with five years' notice, sources close to the situation said.

"We have our current product through Sept. 30, 2004: Nothing happens for at least a year," said Andrea Greenberg, president of Rainbow distribution and Rainbow Sports Networks, which owns Fox Sports Chicago.

Tribune Co. owns Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs; Jerry Reinsdorf owns baseball's White Sox and the National Basketball Association's Bulls; and Bill Wirtz runs the National Hockey League's Blackhawks. None could be reached for comment at press time.

Sources said the teams are talking to Comcast about creating a new regional sports network. Comcast has been in talks with Rainbow Sports to buy out a majority interest in Fox Sports Chicago — where Comcast controls most of the cable homes — and in Fox Sports Ohio, Fox Sports Bay Area, Fox Sports New England and Fox Sports Florida.

But if Comcast secures the Chicago teams' rights separately, sources said, it's likely Fox Sports Chicago would remain a Rainbow-controlled network.

News Corp. owns a minority stake in the regionals.

Comcast owns regional sports networks in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

MSO representatives would not comment on the matter.

Alternatively, the teams have discussed creating their own sports network, sources said.

Whatever happens, by necessity Comcast will be involved. "What makes the situation unique or different from some others is that Comcast is the dominant player in the region," Kagan Sports analyst John Mansell said. "So it has to be considered a player and dealt with by whoever owns the sports rights."

Greenberg said Rainbow will continue to operate the 3.8 million-subscriber Fox Sports Chicago, and has "assurances that Fox Sports Chicago will continue to be offered through a majority of the Chicago ADI in the same manner it's currently offered."

Fox Sports Chicago charges close to $2 per subscriber in license fees, which it might be forced to shave. Greenberg would not comment on deal points.

Remaining fare would include national programming from Fox Sports Net, including Best Damn Sports Show Period, and college games.

"There's lots of programming of regional and national interest on our channel," Greenberg said.

Mansell said it's also possible the teams could return to Fox Sports Chicago. "There are a lot of permutations that could occur."

Elsewhere last week, the NBA's Sacramento Kings said the team needed an outlet for 25 cable games, as its agreement with Fox Sports Bay Area has expired.

Greenberg acknowledged the Kings have chosen not to renew, but said plenty of pro sports product remains through long-term deals with baseball's San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, basketball's Golden State Warriors and hockey's San Jose Sharks.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.