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Baseball, ESPN See Air of Ways

Television: Court battle avoided in 11th hour as new six-year, $851-million deal is reached.

December 07, 1999|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Regular-season baseball games will continue to be televised by ESPN and ESPN2 through at least 2005 under terms of an 11th-hour settlement reached shortly before a federal trial was to begin in New York on Monday.

ESPN and major league baseball jointly announced a new six-year, $851-million deal, beginning next season.

The deal ends a heated legal dispute that began in 1998, after ESPN acquired the rights to early-season Sunday night NFL games and moved Sunday night baseball games in September to ESPN2.

At the core of the dispute was baseball's not wanting to play second fiddle to the NFL.

In a compromise, ESPN will move three Sunday night baseball telecasts in September to Friday nights on ESPN or ESPN2, where they will not be opposed by NFL games. There also will be three additional ESPN2 Sunday night telecasts earlier in the season.

The financial aspect of ESPN's offer also helped facilitate the settlement. ESPN was paying $40 million a year for regular-season baseball. Under the new deal, the average yearly rights fee will be more than $240 million.

The number of telecasts will increase from 90 to 108 a season, which on the surface would not justify the huge increase. But the new deal also includes Internet rights and rights to interactive games, and the value of those aspects is hard to estimate.

The new deal is only for regular-season games on television but includes both regular-season and postseason games--including the World Series--on ESPN radio. The radio rights went for $46 million, or $7.7 million a year.

"I think what we learned here is two sides can have a disagreement but still move forward to the benefit of both, and that's what we have done here," baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said.

ESPN President George Bodenheiner said, "Rest assured that ESPN believes this is a very good deal with plenty of value for us. . . . It has been our firm belief all along that partners should do whatever they can to stay out of court. We accomplished that with this agreement."

Paul Beeston, baseball's chief operating officer, said talks heated up Wednesday night and a deal was finally reached at 5:45 Sunday morning. An announcement was delayed so that baseball's owners could be informed.

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