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Regionals on Prowl for Bobcats Rights

7/01/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Several companies are on the fast break for rights to Charlotte Bobcats National Basketball Association games, following last Thursday’s shutdown of Carolina Sports and Entertainment Television (C-SET).

Fox Sports Net, upstart Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, and Time Warner Inc. are the early front-runners for the rights, which became available after C-SET shut its doors due to stagnant distribution.

OTHERS HAVE FAILED

C-SET is the latest team-owned regional sports network to fall by the wayside. Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins (Victory Sports) and basketball’s Memphis Grizzlies (GrizzliesNet) turned to Fox Sports Net last year after failing to start up their own regionals. Basketball’s Houston Rockets and baseball’s Houston Astros also scuttled their plans to unite and create a new regional sports network after signing long-term deals with Fox Sports Southwest.

C-SET, launched last October by Black Entertainment Television president Robert L. Johnson as part of his ownership of the NBA expansion team, was plagued with limited distribution from the outset, after reaching a questionable digital-tier carriage agreement with Time Warner Inc. The network only reached 600,000 of the MSO’s 1.7 million subscribers in the Carolinas.

Along with 60 Bobcats games, C-SET presented Charlotte Sting Women’s National Basketball Association games.

“It essentially points up the difficulty of tiering for sports,” said Lee Berke, a consultant who works with teams looking to launch regional sports networks “Tiers work for specialty networks, but this network needed basic distribution and it didn’t get it.”

C-SET officials did not return calls by press time.

A number of media companies are positioning themselves to nab Bobcats rights on the rebound. Fox Sports Net, which carried Charlotte Hornets games on its Atlanta-based FSN South before the team moved to New Orleans two years ago, said it is very interested.

“We have a strong and widely distributed network in that part of the country, and obviously we’d be interested in having discussions with the Bobcats, just as we did the last time the rights were available,” said Fox Sports Net president Bob Thompson.

While Bobcats games would most likely end up on FSN South, Thompson wouldn’t rule out either splitting the network, or creating another regional sports network in the market to accommodate the team.

“That is one of the markets that we’ve considered [for a new network],” he said.

What FSN would not do is make the Bobcats games exclusive to cable, as C-SET did. News Corp., which owns FSN, also owns satellite provider DirecTV Inc.

“That is not a route that we are prepared to take,” he said.

Time Warner officials said the MSO is currently in discussions with the Bobcats about carrying future games, but would not say if they are entertaining the possibility of creating a stand-alone sports network. “We enjoyed carrying the Bobcats and hope to continue to make their games available to our customers,” said a Time Warner spokesman.

TERRITORIAL REACH

Another likely suitor is MASN — majority-owned by baseball’s Baltimore Orioles and currently offering Washington Nationals baseball games.

It’s unclear, however, whether the network would be able to extend its reach into both North and South Carolina.

“If it’s within our ability to do so, we would certainly be interested in the games,” said a MASN spokesman.

Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, which is embroiled in rights litigation with the Orioles over the launch of MASN, has no plans to distribute programming to the Carolinas.

 

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