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Set To Throw Out First Pitch, Dodgers Network Still Looking to Build Distribution Roster

The Los Angeles Dodgers made it to the 2013 National League Championship Series before being eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals. This season, the team has its sights set higher on the diamond and off with a new, dedicated regional sports network that will air over 160 of its exhibition and regular-season contests.

SportsNet LA, owned by the club and managed by Time Warner Cable, is slated to throw out its first pitch on Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. (PT), with an introduction by broadcasting legend Vin Scully leading into a live 90-minute version of Access SportsNet Dodgers from TWC Sports studios in El Segundo, where the network’s on-air team, including Charley Steiner, Orel Hershiser, Nomar Garciaparra, Jerry Hairston Jr., Alanna Rizzo and John Hartung, will be on hand. They will be joined by Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer and Dodger owner Earvin “Magic” Johnson, former manager Tommy Lasorda, current skipper Don Mattingly, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez  and team president and CEO Stan Kasten. There also will be a throw to the team’s Camelback Ranch spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz.

At 8:30, Backstage: Dodgers, the weekly documentary series, will give fans a sense of what spring training has been like thus far, followed by back-to-back episodes of interview show Connected With…that will put the spotlight on Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and then Mattingly. The hour-long 2013 Dodgers: A Whole New Blue special will take a look back at last season.

It all seems like a smart way to give fans a taste of the original programming they can expect from SportsNet LA. But how many viewers, if any, beyond Time Warner Cable subscribers, will get to see the RSN’s debut and the club’s preseason opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks the next day, remained anybody’s guess at press time.

Presumably, Bakersfield subscribers to Bright House Networks, for which Time Warner Cable negotiates programming deals, will have access. Beyond that, a survey of other major providers in the greater Los Angeles area yielded concerns about the high price of the network. SportsNet LA takes its first cut at regular-season action with the Dodgers-Arizona Diamondbacks on March 22-23 from Sydney Australia, with those games also being produced by MLB Network, according to TWC Sports president David Rone. The two games will not be available on MLB Network in the Dodgers' TV area.

Previously, Dodgers games aired on KCAL-TV and Fox’s Prime Ticket. But under a 25-year deal valued at some $8.35 billion -- which some say could actually be closer to $9 billion -- the Dodgers control the channel and TWC Sports manages and operates it, including affiliate negotiations. Moreover, TWC will cover the RSN's costs for the other distributors in its TV territory, even if they don’t carry the service, as part of rights fees that are said to range from somewhere between $210 million and $250 million during its first season.

Published reports put the monthly subscriber asking price for SportsNet LA at $5, while others say it's more in the $4.50 range, before noting that the price escalates quickly in subsequent years.

Rone, in an interview, would not specify asking price, other than to say it’s “less than $5.”

Whatever the exact rate and terms, distributors have yet to bridge them.

“We hope it is possible to come to an agreement with TWC SportsNet LA that does not burden our customers with excessive price increases,” said Andy Albert, senior vice president of content acquisition for Cox Communications. “We will continue to fight on behalf of all our customers, not just sports/Dodgers fans, and protect the value of the products and services we provide.

Dan York, chief content officer of DirecTV, the second-largest distributor in the RSN’s footprint, was also balking as of last week:” Time Warner Cable has chosen an above-market deal and now expects all of its customers and all of the customers of its competitors to foot the bill, including Time Warner Cable’s profit from the RSN.”

Kasten, said he understands “the process” in affiliate negotiations, but believes the popularity of the team and the network’s “very appealing programming” will ultimately bear carriage fruit.

“This is the first and only team with a dedicated 24/7 channel. SportsNet LA will preserve and celebrate the history, legacy and prestige of this franchise," Kasten said, noting that in “talking to various stations, the word that came back was that fans want more access to the players and we’re going to give it to them, the behind-the-scenes stuff.”

The Dodgers CEO said the players will have the chance to be very active with the network. “Some will be very open; others will back up a bit," he said. "It’s tailored to how they want to present themselves to the fans.”

Rone, too, expressed optimism that deals for SportNet L.A. will be struck, noting that the early consumer response reaching out to providers via is “trending ahead” of when the MSO employed a similar tactic prior to the launch of its two Los Angeles Lakers-centric networks in October 2012. TWC gained the rights to the fabled NBA franchise, whose contests formerly aired on Fox Sports West and KCAL-TV, via a 20-year deal valued at more than $3 billion.

As part of the negotiations, Rone said SportNet LA is offering the network’s fare – sans game programming – to distributors to reach Dodgers’ fans who reside outside of the team’s TV game territory.

He also said the network does not have a deal with Major League Baseball Advanced Media for in-market streaming rights to the Dodgers games, but “we’re still having those conversations.”

With its arrival on Tuesday, SportsNet LA will join the two Lakers-centric services, Time Warner Cable SportsNet and Time Warner Cable Deportes, Fox Sports West, Prime Ticket and the Pac-12 Networks national and Los Angeles feed, to give the Los Angeles area seven RSNs. Togethery, they are taking a major chunk out of consumers wallets.

Calling fees for SportNet LA, more than twice those that other baseball teams charge, DirecTV chairman and CEO Mike White last week on a conference call with analysts to discuss fourth-quarter results warned that subscribers in the LA DMA could see further increases in their monthly RSN surcharges if the satellite giant carries the channel at current prices.

Added York:  “Whether a surcharge or otherwise, this is an expensive deal that ends up being paid for by pay-TV subscribers with the money being put in the pockets of the teams, the team owners, the players and middle men.”

Meanwhile, a ramped-up consumer ad initiative is aimed at boosting awareness of Sports Net LA's arrival.

Rone said the campaign started a few weeks ago with billboards, featuring Kershaw, outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Expected to run until at least mid-March, the campaign, trading on the tagline, "Great Moments Live Forever. Great Moments Live Here." has been expanded to include radio, digital and TV.  Voiced over by Vin Scully, there are four TV spots: one apiece with Kershaw and Puig, another featuring Kirk Gibson’s iconic pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series (the last time the club won the title) and a fourth signaling what the Dodgers mean to Los Angeles.  

Rone said there is a real buzz for the squad around town, forged in large measure by a 42-8 stretch during the 2013 campaign that Kasten said was one of best runs in MLB history. The Dodger president also noted that Dodgers led the league in attendance in 2013 and that its TV ratings jumped. He said more sponsors have come on board with signage that will be visible in restaurant/retail areas near the bullpen, as well as an LED ribbon in Dodger Stadium.

Rone added that “advertisers have responded enthusiastically” to the network, as 19 have signed deals for the RSN’s rookie run.

Now, if TWC and the Dodgers only can get distributors to share in that excitement.

Chris Lauricella, vice president, content at AT&T U-verse, noted that the telco’s strategy centers on carrying the sports its subscribers want the most, but only through fair deals.

“One way we do that is by measuring anonymous viewership data to determine what our subscribers watch and what they value. We compare those viewership metrics against the cost we pay for the programming to determine the value proposition for that content,” he explained. “Then we use that information in negotiations to help us reduce escalating costs because those costs are ultimately passed on to consumers. That is why we stand firm on negotiating deals that are in our customers’ best interest. “

Verizon said it has had discussions with SportsNet LA, but there remains “some significant differences. We are always looking to provide customers with the content they want while making sure it is economically feasible.”

Dish Network, which doesn’t carry TWC’s Lakers networks, offered a similar response: “We are interested in carrying high quality content at an appropriate value. If that balance can be struck, we are willing to consider it.”

Despite such positions – or negotiating dialogue – Kasten uttered an “emphatic “yes” when asked if he expects Sportsnet L.A. to secure significant carriage.

“What I want is for the network to be available to all Dodgers fans throughout the territory,” he said.