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Twins Net Would Follow Yankees' Lead

The New York Yankees aren't the only Major League Baseball team with an itch to launch its own regional sports network.

The Minnesota Twins' ownership will launch a regional sports network in the Midwest early next year to vie against Fox Sports Net North — even though actual Twins games may not be available to the network for another two years.

The service, Victory Sports, has reached a distribution agreement with ESPN for carriage of ESPN News and a package of Minnesota-area college sports events, including University of Minnesota Gophers college basketball games.

Meanwhile, the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network (YES) last week continued to ramp up for its March 2002 debut by hiring several former AT&T Broadband executives, including former MSO executive vice president of programming Matt Bond.

Victory Sports president Kevin Cattoor said the new service is scheduled to launch in early 2002, with plans to reach approximately 2.5 million subscribers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota.

The service will initially offer ESPN News programming, as well as a slew of local college basketball and other sports events provided by ESPN Regional Television. ESPN Regional — created after ESPN purchased syndicator Creative Sports in 1994 — offers more than 600 live college and other sports events annually.

ESPN will provide Victory with 20 Minnesota men's college basketball contests and three Golden Gophers college football games per year, Cattoor said.

The agreement also provides Victory Sports with over 100 collegiate football and basketball contests, featuring matchups from the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Conference USA, Mid-Atlantic Conference, Mountain West, Mid-American Conference and the Western Athletic Conference.

TWINS COULD BE SHUT OUT

But what the network may not have immediately is Twins baseball games. Fox Sports Net North sued the Twins and Cattoor last May for trying to wriggle out of its long-term distribution deal with the network.

FSN contends its contract calls for an extension of its Twins deal through the 2002 and 2003 seasons, if there is "an acceptable stadium solution, excluding a new stadium."

But Cattoor, previously general manger of Midwest Sports Channel — which changed its name to FSN North after Fox Cable Networks acquired it from Viacom Inc.'s CBS Cable last February — contends the team does not have an "acceptable" stadium deal.

For its part, FSN maintained that the Twins have a lease to play in the team's current stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, through the next two seasons. Fox Sports Net representatives would not comment further on the lawsuit, or on the planned launch of Victory Sports.

"We feel that the terms of our agreement with FSN is up at the end of this season," Cattoor said. "We'll let the lawsuit determine where the Twins live next year."

Cattoor said the service would debut next year — with or without the baseball team. He said the network is seeking basic carriage from operators, although he would not disclose its planned rate card.

Sources close to the situation said the network could cost operators as much as $1.50 to $2.50 per subscriber.

Operators, already weary from high-priced sports networks, aren't looking to pay that much for a second regional sports network service.

"The Twins are a major draw in the market, but I don't think it would be economically viable to increase rates for all subscribers [to distribute Victory]," said one area operator who wished to remain anonymous.

YES EXPANDS EXEC ROSTER

The YES network faces a similar hurdle in its attempts to gain distribution in the New York market. To help sell the service to operators, YES CEO Leo J. Hindery Jr. last week hired AT&T programming veteran Bond as executive vice president of affiliate relations.

Bond will be on the front lines of what will likely be thorny negotiations with operators. He would not reveal the network's license fee.

But industry observers believe the network will charge at least $2 per subscriber for the service, which is expected to also include New Jersey Nets National Basketball Association games beginning in the fall of 2002.

New Jersey Devils National Hockey League games are also expected to air on the channel after the 2007 season.

Games for both teams are currently carried on Fox Sports New York. Like the Yankees, the Nets and Devils are owned by YankeeNets, the holding company that controls 60 percent of YES.

Having dealt with the phenomenon of rising sports fees as head of programming for AT&T Broadband, Bond said he understands operator angst about the high cost of regional sports networks.

"Hopefully my experience will help structure an agreement that works for both the operators and the network," he said.

Bond, who spent nearly a decade at Tele-Communications Inc. (now AT&T Broadband) added he's looking forward to his new challenge.

"I'm sorry to be leaving a great company in AT&T," Bond said. "But I think this is a great opportunity."

Bond was one of several former AT&T Broadband or GlobalCenter Inc. employees to rejoin Hindery at YES. Hindery previously served as AT&T Broadband president and as GlobalCenter CEO.

Among the former AT&T Broadband colleagues joining YES are Grace de Latour as executive vice president of human relations; David Krone as executive vice president of regulatory and government affairs; Jerry Machovina as executive vice president of media sales; and Barbara Wood as chief administrative officer.

Former GlobalCenter employees moving to YES include Craig Fisher, who will serve as senior vice president of development; Derek Chang, who will fill the executive vice president of development post; and Mark Coleman, who will serve as general counsel.

Former ABC Sports executive John Filipelli was named executive vice president of production and programming.

Hindery would not reveal plans for other programming acquisitions for the network, but said he's willing to talk to prospective clients.

"We're going to talk to anybody and everybody who could give us good shoulder programming," he said.

One such supplier could be ESPN. Along with Victory Sports, ESPN has deals with such upstart regional sports services as the Portland Trail Blazers' Action Sports Cable Network, which launched this year. More recently, ESPN reached a deal with New England Sports Network for distribution of ESPN programming as a backdrop to the network's Boston Red Sox telecasts.

ESPN vice president of broadband and Internet TV sales Manish Jha confirmed the company has talked to YES about a potential deal, but would not reveal specific details.

"Everybody is aware of the strength of the ESPN brand and we're always looking to provide quality sports news and a breadth of college sports product to as many viewers as we can," Jha said.