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Fox Hopes to Shake Off a Baseball 'Curse'

Stellar ratings buck recent playoffs, World Series trend

October 10, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Scores of baseball fans have their fingers crossed that this year finally might put an end to "the curse." But nobody is rooting harder than the suits at Fox Broadcasting Co.

For them, the focus isn't the "Curse of the Bambino," which allegedly has kept the Boston Red Sox from winning a World Series since they sold Babe Ruth to their archrivals, the New York Yankees, in 1920. Nor are they necessarily sweating over whatever hex has hobbled the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won the championship since 1908.

For Fox, a unit of News Corp., baseball has been a curse of sliding ratings and millions of dollars in losses. Not to mention the dreaded disruption to the network's launch of its fall entertainment lineup.

But suddenly, baseball seems to be turning into a blessing.

"The gods of baseball are smiling on Fox Broadcasting," Leland Westerfield, media analyst with Jefferies & Co. in New York, said Thursday.

Ratings for postseason games are up an average 29% over last year. This week's matchups between the American League's Red Sox and Yankees and the National League's Florida Marlins and Cubs have reeled in 41% more viewers than comparable games a year ago.

Advertising rates are running 7% higher than last year, with 30-second spots for the World Series selling for $325,000.

"Life couldn't be better," said Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports. "This is the best October I've had in many a year."

The reasons are simple: The Yankees and Cubs come from two of the nation's three biggest TV markets; the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox all enjoy large national followings (something that the latter two owe, in no small part, to their underdog images); and the games have been close and exciting.

A Cubs-Red Sox matchup in the World Series, Fox executives noted, could provide a particularly big windfall -- especially if it goes six or seven games. With both teams suffering from decades-long championship droughts, they offer a compelling story line. (The Cubs are owned by Tribune Co., which also publishes The Times.)

"A dream date between Boston and Chicago would tug at the nation's heartstrings," Westerfield said. "If these two storied, beleaguered franchises face each other for the title, there would be a high level of national emotion. And it would make for a very desirable place for advertisers to display their brands."

What's more, Fox owns stations in both Chicago and Boston. (It also owns a New York station. Fox doesn't, however, own its South Florida affiliate.)

Owning a station in a market with a team in the playoffs is a boon for a TV network because such an arrangement allows it to control the commercial time sold before, during and after the game. Fox sales representatives have been busy trolling for corporate sponsorships from companies based in Chicago and Boston, as well as elsewhere.

Just this week, Nissan Motor Co. and the online division at AOL Time Warner Inc. added themselves to the roster of corporate sponsors, joining AT&T Corp., Allstate Corp., General Motors Corp., PepsiCo Inc., Anheuser Busch Cos., John Hancock Financial Services, Sprint Corp., MasterCard International Inc. and Pfizer Inc.'s Viagra. Besides claiming a discount on advertising, sponsors get to be part of a rotation in which their logos are displayed behind home plate.

"Having teams from markets of this size and teams with such storied histories is really helping us," said Jon Nesvig, Fox's advertising president.

Until this year, baseball has been something of an Achilles' heel for the network.

In 2002, News Corp. took a $225-million write-down for losses from its six-year Major League Baseball contract. The deal gives Fox exclusive rights to broadcast the World Series and league championships. Fox shares the first round of the playoffs with Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN network.

Unlike the Super Bowl, in which the National Football League champion is decided on a Sunday night that traditionally delivers the year's biggest ratings and advertising dollars, the World Series plays out over four to seven games. All the while, it competes against a fresh batch of fall shows on rival networks.

Baseball has thus taken Fox's entertainment division out of the game for much of October. Last year, the network tried to pitch around baseball by running new shows for two weeks in September and shelving the remainder to debut after the World Series. That didn't work.

This year, Fox trotted out one of its hottest prospects, a drama called "The O.C.," in August when competitors were airing reruns and reality shows.

The result was promising. During its seven-week run, it averaged a healthy 8.4 million viewers.

"Clearly, we have made some mistakes in the past," said Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow. "We've been trying to figure out ways to maximize the upside of having baseball, and I think we're well on the way."

Another baseball bonus this year has been Fox's ability to hype its shows before a large audience. In all, Fox is promoting eight shows during the playoffs. Said Grushow: "We're all benefiting from baseball."

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