Mets Network Taps NHL’s Litner

The fledgling New York Mets network has tapped sports veteran John Litner as its president.

Litner, a former ABC Sports executive who had been serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the National Hockey League since 1999, will officially assume duties as the yet-to-be-named regional sports network -- which will televise up to 125 Mets Major League Baseball games in 2006 -- Feb. 22.

The RSN is owned by Sterling Entertainment Enterprises -- a media company led by the MLB franchise’s owner, Fred Wilpon -- as well as Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., and it will be managed by the latter.

During a conference call announcing his hiring, Litner said the network would aggressively pursue other programming opportunities to supplement the baseball club’s games, expressing confidence that a lineup would be established that would present “extraordinary value” to viewers, even though the area’s professional basketball and hockey teams are all tied up with long-term deals.

“I have only been on the job for two hours, but I’ve already been inundated with calls from programming suppliers,” he added.

Litner noted that the RSN’s lineup would showcase an extensive sports-news and information block -- something he believes will fill a void in the New York DMA.

Other than saying that it would provide more information and access than ever before, especially with regard to the Mets, Litner was short on particulars.

He did note that the news-and-information programming would be a combination of “doing it ourselves, getting information from other news bureaus and tapping the infrastructure of Comcast regional sports networks.” He said Comcast has been presenting sports news and information very successfully with its channels in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the MSO has started doing the same with its new RSNs in Chicago and Sacramento, Calif.

Lauding Comcast’s and Time Warner’s technological prowess, he said video-on-demand programming is one of the new-media options the network would explore. He also mentioned mobile and wireless platforms as possibilities. “People are following sports in different ways,” he said. “We have to follow the eyeballs.”

Asked what role Time Warner and Comcast might play in driving ad sales, Litner said developing a sales plan and strategy is part of his charge, but not his immediate focus, which concerns “building a management team and the network.”

As for the litigation filed by Cablevision Systems Corp. -- in which a New York State judge last December denied the MSO’s request for an injunction to block the development of the Mets’ regional until after the team’s carriage deal with Madison Square Garden Networks expires at the end of the 2005 season -- Litner said that was a matter for the lawyers.

Litner expects the Mets network -- which, he said, has an enormous advantage in terms of a guaranteed launch before 3.1 million Time Warner and Comcast homes that Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network didn’t have when it debuted in 2001 -- to be available to all viewers in the tristate area when it bows next year.

Cablevision failed to reach an accord with YES -- which telecasts New York Yankees MLB games that previously aired on MSGN and New Jersey Nets National Basketball Association games that formerly ran on FSN New York-- 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. In March 2004, 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 the combination of 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.

Prior to joining the NHL, Litner had been senior VP, programming at ABC Sports, where he was responsible for the acquisition and scheduling of more than 500 hours of primetime and weekend sports programming on the broadcast network.

His duties included negotiating all television agreements, overseeing sponsorship and media sales related to sports programming, providing creative direction to production staff and managing all key business relationships.

Before working with ABC, he was VP, business affairs at the Baseball Network, the venture formed in 1993 by ABC and NBC Sports and MLB, where he was in charge of negotiating talent and production-facilities agreements and overseeing sponsorship sales.