Indians Channel Makes First Pitch to Systems

Fastball Sports Productions LLC is expected to announce Thursday the name for its regional sports network covering the Cleveland Indians, the service’s logo and its on-air talent.

Whether Fastball will be able to announce any new distribution partners that day is another matter.

Fastball is controlled by the family of Cleveland lawyer Larry Dolan, the owner of Major League Baseball’s Indians, and has already signed a distribution deal with Time Warner Cable, the dominant distributor in the inner Cleveland market.

Previously, the game rights were held by FSN Ohio, which offered $35 million per year to keep them.

Cable veteran Jim Liberatore, who was named president of Fastball earlier this month, has been talking to distributors in Ohio and other service areas.

“A couple of [executives] have accepted invitations to opening day and said they are starting to explore selling sponsorships. Those are good signs,” said Liberatore, who most recently headed Speed Channel. “Some of the others may be more difficult.”

The difficulties, according to several cable operators, stem not only from a high monthly license fee — a term sheet indicates four pricing zones with distributors furthest away being asked to pay about 94 cents per month, including 2 minutes of ad time per hour, while those closer to Cleveland would allocate $1.83 — but a relative lack of product.

At launch, the service will offer 130 regular-season games and eight spring training games. Including the contests and replays and other ancillary shows, the network will only be on about eight hours a day. Liberatore said, non-Indians fare would be added in July.

Twenty other contests will air on WKYC-TV in Cleveland, which will produce all of the games for the service.

“It’s a lot of money for a network that is only going to have 500-1,000 hours during its first year,” said Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable TV Inc. “I made an offer, they turned me down. I made another offer, and hadn’t heard back from them. It doesn’t look very promising.”

One Ohio cable-system executive was more philosophical. “It’s a little pricey for a part-time network, but what choice do we have? The satellite guys are likely to take it and the Indians are a popular team,” he said, noting he was awaiting a counter-offer from Fastball.