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NBA’s Hornets — and Cox — Move On

6/04/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Local fans of the New Orleans Hornets
will get to watch college player of the year Anthony
Davis patrol the lane next season on a different regional
sports network.

Fox Sports last week was closing in on a new deal
for regional media rights to the Hornets games that
have been airing on Cox Communications-owned
Cox Sports Television over the past decade.

The new rights pact is expected to become official somet ime in
June, when the National
Basketball Association
transfers control
of the franchise to Tom
Benson, who also owns
the National Football
League’s New Orleans
Saints.

When the deal closes,
Cox will mark its withdrawal
from the regional
sports network rights
game. Its other RSN was
in the San Diego market,
where Cox carried
San Diego Padres MLB
games on its 4SD channel
for 15 years. Fox
Sports signed a longterm
contract for Padres
rights that took
effect this season.

CHANGING TIMES

Cox had used Padres and
Hornets rights as a competitive
edge in markets
where it is the dominant
cable provider. Using a
loophole in federal regulations,
Cox did not make
its regional networks
available to satellite and
telecommunications
competitors.

But in January 2010,
the FCC voted to eliminate
the loophole that applied to terrestrially delivered
RSNs like Cox’s 4SD in San Diego.

Cox entered into network-affiliate negotiations
with rivals that year, but never reached deals with
DirecTV, Dish Network or AT&T U-verse. Time Warner
Cable, currently at impasse in negotiations with
the Padres’ new home, FS San Diego, did carry 4SD.

It was unclear at press time which Fox RSN will
televise the Hornets (who may be renamed by new
owner Benson by the time the next NBA season
starts). But the club figures to benefit on the court
and with the Nielsens after it makes Davis, the center
who led the Kentucky Wildcats to the 2012 NCAA
Division I men’s basketball title, the top pick in the
upcoming NBA draft. The Hornets won the league’s
draft lottery last Wednesday (May 30).

The likeliest scenario has FS Southwest — the
umbrella cable home of the NBA Dallas Mavericks,
San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the
NHL Dallas Stars and Major League Baseball’s Texas
Rangers — delivering a New Orleans feed.

Fox Sports, as it has obtained more team rights,
has dedicated separate feeds and branding to specific regions.

Those include FS Oklahoma, around the aforementioned
Thunder, and FS Indiana, which showcases
Indiana Pacers games that were split off from
FS Midwest.

Sources familiar with the negotiations indicated
that Comcast SportsNet expressed preliminary interest
in the Hornets rights as they became available
with the pending expiration of Cox’s 10-year deal.

By contrast, Cox was unwilling to up the ante
to retain the Hornets’
rights, which sources peg
in the low eight figures
over 10 years. The rights
outlay is said to escalate
annually over the contract’s
course.

“The cost of sports programming
continues to
rise and, in this case, the
requested value exceeded
what we were willing
to pay,” a Cox spokesman
said. “We can’t comment
on agreements between
the Hornets and any future
rights holder. We will
negotiate to carry and will
announce any resulting
programming agreement
at a later date.”

Fox Sports said it “had
nothing to announce at
this time.”

Published reports,
though, have Cox already
committing to carry the
Hornets game on Fox
Sports in the New Orleans
market.

The network also will
seek affiliate contracts
with DirecTV and Charter
Communications, the
other primary providers in
and around New Orleans.

DirecTV, which carries
FS Southwest, never had a
deal with Cox Sports Television. Charter offered Hornets
games to subscribers for an extra $5 monthly fee.

“Fox will have nuanced discussions with
DirecTV,” an executive in the sports community said.
“It’s not like the parties are starting from scratch.”

OKLAHOMA SIGNAL

Cox’s shift away from being in the RSN business was
made clear in Oklahoma City. Cox is the predominant
cable company there, and yet the MSO didn’t
bid for Thunder rights when the Seattle SuperSonics
relocated to Oklahoma in 2008.

The top two cable companies, meanwhile, are
growing or forging new RSN assets.

Comcast continues to build out its RSN roster, tipping
off a new regional sports network in Houston
this fall with coverage of the NBA Rockets, adding
MLB’s Astros to the mix next spring.

And Time Warner Cable is entering the game on
Oct. 1 with the launch of a pair Los Angeles Lakerscentric
services, including the nation’s first dedicated
Spanish-language RSN.

September