Comcast, Time Warner, Mets: Play Ball!

With Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable as teammates, the New York Mets will be playing ball with their own regional sports network come spring 2006.

The MSOs -- along with Sterling Entertainment Enterprises, a media company led by the Major League Baseball franchise’s owner, Fred Wilpon -- have formed the as-yet-unnamed channel. Each will have an equity interest in the regional sports network.

Financial terms of the agreement -- which strikes a major blow against Cablevision Systems Corp.-owned Madison Square Garden Network and Fox Sports New York, the current cable carriers of the Mets -- were not disclosed. Comcast, though, will oversee the day-to-day management of the service.

In June, the Mets exercised an option under the team’s 1996 rights agreement and paid MSGN $54 million to terminate the deal -- which had been slated to expire in 2011 -- after the 2005 season. Currently, MSGN and FSNY split 100 Mets games, with 50 others appearing on WPIX-TV.

The new RSN -- which will be carried on Comcast’s and Time Warner’s expanded-basic tiers -- will offer up to 125 regular-season Mets games, exhibition contests and other shoulder programming around the ball club.

The RSN is expected to present all Mets home games and select away contests in HD, as well as offering video-on-demand content. The parties said the new network would also seek other professional and amateur sports events.

While the Mets’ network will immediately gain access to nearly 3.1 million homes (2.3 million from Time Warner, 790,000 from Comcast) in New York City, New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, New Jersey and Connecticut, gaining distribution on Cablevision may not come easy.

Cablevision failed to reach an accord with Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network -- which telecasts New York Yankees games that previously aired on MSGN -- shutting out that RSN from its subscriber base during its rookie season in 2002.

Hours before the start of the 2003 season, YES and Cablevision -- which had been at odds over basic-cable positioning and rates -- agreed to binding arbitration that was brokered by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. This past March, an arbitration decision put YES on the MSO’s expanded-basic tier for the next six years.

Spitzer also played a prominent role this summer in getting Time Warner and MSGN and FSNY to reach a temporary agreement over a dispute that kept the Mets off the MSO’s air for 10 days due to a contract dispute over the value of the RSNs.

Grabbing a piece of the Mets network is the latest in an array of moves that has seen Comcast become a major player in the regional sports arena.

Over the past few months, Comcast -- which had been running RSNs in Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C./Baltimore areas and a small Southeastern college-sports channel -- has grown its roster to include a full-fledged service in central California, centering around the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings, and launched team-oriented regionals for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys and MLB’s Atlanta Braves.

Last year, Comcast debuted a net tied to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

In addition, the MSO figures to be a major player in an RSN MLB is expected to establish with the Baltimore Orioles and the relocated franchise in the nation’s capitol.

"MSG Networks has had a long and successful relationship with the New York Mets that will continue through the 2005 baseball season," the programmer said in a prepared statement. "We will continue to carefully monitor the situation and will have no additional comment at this time."

“We are pleased to ensure that Mets fans in the New York metropolitan area will be able to watch their team for years to come in an uninterrupted manner,” Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt said in a prepared statement.

“We are pleased to join with SEE and Time Warner in forming this network. Our participation allows us an opportunity to provide compelling sports programming and greater value for our customers in the New York Mets viewing area and an opportunity to apply our sports-programming expertise in a way that will benefit Mets fans,” Comcast chief operating officer and Comcast Cable Communications Inc. president Steve Burke said in a prepared statement.