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Friday, May 23, 2014
TV impasse still plagues Dodgers

By Mark Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers are nearly one-third of the way through a season with sky-high expectations and the vast majority of their fans in Southern California still can't watch their games on TV.

It doesn't sound like they will be able to anytime soon, either.

Time Warner Cable, which operates SportsNet LA, the team-owned all-Dodgers station that launched in February, still doesn't have distribution agreements with DirecTV, Cox, Charter Communications, Verizon, Dish or AT&T. That means the games are available only to Time Warner Cable subscribers and two other smaller providers in the region, with more than 63 percent of the market in the dark.

Dan York, vice president for programming for DirecTV, which provides pay TV to roughly one-quarter of the Los Angeles market, said Time Warner Cable is asking for about twice what most regional sports networks cost providers.

"Time Warner Cable did an unprecedented deal and now they expect all their competitors to bankroll that deal," York told "That includes the customers who have no interest in watching the Dodgers, and that's not fair to millions of families."

Even games carried nationally, aside from ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" and Saturday games on Fox Sports One, are blacked out locally.

The Dodgers lead the major leagues in attendance, with an average of 46,194 tickets sold for 22 home games, but an average of just 43,000 households are watching their games on TWC, according to Nielsen ratings, a drop of nearly 72 percent from last season, when games were carried by a Fox-owned station.

L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti chided Time Warner at an industry gathering last month, saying, "I hope that we can resolve the fact that our hometown baseball team, the Dodgers, is not currently seen on all of our boxes around the city."

TWC paid the Dodgers $8.35 billion to purchase 25 years of rights to the team's games, but according to sources, the total cost of the deal could wind up closer to $9 billion because of other costs involved.

The providers holding out say the company is asking too much for its subscriber fee to defray the costs of the deal. The Dodgers will receive $230 million from Time Warner this year, with payments eventually reaching $350 million. 

SportsNet LA carries Dodgers content 24 hours a day.

According to sources, the cost of acquiring the Dodgers' channel would vary depending on cities and neighborhoods, but the asking price is widely believed to average between $4 and $5 per household. According to Time Warner Cable, it is asking for less than what it pays to air the Yes Network in New York, which carries the Yankees, a Pittsburgh network owned by DirecTV and a Fox-owned channel in San Diego.

Two months ago, TWC accused DirecTV of walking out on the talks. The cable company declined an interview request for this story, but issued a statement that read in part, "DirecTV has shown no sense of urgency in getting a deal done. SportsNet LA is available on fair terms consistent with its value. If DirecTV wants to change the way regional sports networks are offered, they should start with the channels they own."

DirecTV has said it would be willing to pay a higher fee if it could offer the Dodgers channel on a pay-per-view basis or in a tiered sports package, but the team and TWC want to get full distribution of the channel. Dodgers president Stan Kasten declined an interview request for this story, as well, but he told on Opening Day he was "confident it will get done."

The worst-case scenario for the Dodgers would be what happened in Houston, where the Astros' carrier filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy after failing to arrange carriage deals with the major providers. The difference, Kasten said in March, is that the Dodgers have a better, more exciting team to offer their fans.

"I think what we've done on our end is something very different than what Houston did, so I feel very comfortable with that: the quality of our team, the value of the product we're putting out there -- 24 hours of Dodger content," Kasten said.

David Carter, who runs the sports business institute at USC, said the timing of the dispute suggests customers are experiencing fatigue at the accumulating costs of regional sports networks.

"Subscription fees continued to get layered on top of each other," Carter said, "so, all of a sudden, here's the Pac-12 Network, now it's the Lakers. They start reading about it and, cumulatively, customers start to really pay attention. In a vacuum, $4 may not seem so high, but it's really not the entire story."

Most of Southern California has to settle for watching highlights as the Dodgers are in third place -- 4.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants -- in the NL West.

"I'm mad about it big-time, like everyone else," said Ruben Lopez, who was watching the game at a Figueroa Street bar about four miles north of Dodger Stadium. "Big-money companies get more and more money and we have this ridiculous TV situation. It's bad for the fans."