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In the L.A. sports viewing market, a clash of media titans

Time Warner has already stolen the Lakers away from Fox Sports West and acquired the rights to the Galaxy. But there's one more programming jewel out there: the Dodgers, who happen to be Fox's most valuable TV asset.

December 05, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw, all smiles during a news conference at Dodger Stadium after winning the 2011 National League Cy Young Award, and the Dodgers are a hot commodity when it comes to broadcast rights.
Ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw, all smiles during a news conference at Dodger… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The NFL doesn't play here, the best college football team in town can't go to a bowl game and, for a while longer, they're not playing basketball at Staples Center. But there is a high-stakes fight being waged locally between a couple of heavyweights.

It's Fox versus Time Warner, and the winner will take home a big trophy: the majority of sports viewers in the nation's second-biggest media market.

Time Warner, which will launch English- and Spanish-language 24-hour sport channels next year, has already stolen the Lakers away from Fox Sports West in a 20-year, $3-billion deal that begins in the 2012-13 season. The cable giant also has acquired the rights to the Los Angeles Galaxy for $55 million over 10 years.

But there's one more jewel of sports programming still out there: the Dodgers, who happen to be Fox's most valuable television asset.

The network has a contract that binds the Dodgers to its Prime Ticket channel through 2013, and it has exclusive negotiating rights until Nov. 30 of next year. But the Dodgers' future is in the hands of a U.S. bankruptcy judge, and owner Frank McCourt has asked the court for permission to auction the Dodgers' television rights before he sells the team.

Time Warner has made clear that it wants to add more sports programming and that the Dodgers are at the top of the company's wish list.

The interest is mutual. The Dodgers would love to see a bidding war between Time Warner and Fox. In pressing the Bankruptcy Court for permission to sell the team's television rights ahead of schedule, the Dodgers said in a filing last week that "Time Warner now has a firm beachhead from which to enter into additional agreements with other Los Angeles sports teams … including the Dodgers."

Fox's regional sports networks in Southern California carry the Angels, Clippers, Kings and Ducks, but it is the Dodgers programming that is vital to its future.

"After losing the Lakers, Fox needs the Dodgers really bad," said AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Marketing, a Chicago-based firm specializing in sports and entertainment marketing.

Fox owned the Dodgers for nearly six years, buying them from Peter O'Malley in 1998 in part because the team's television rights were so valuable. The team and company remained allies until this year, but have now sued each other. Fox sued the Dodgers for trying to open negotiations early. The Dodgers sued Fox, alleging the company was trying to interfere with the sale of the team. The sides are now in mediation, with a hearing on the matter scheduled for Bankruptcy Court Wednesday.

"If you lose the Lakers and Dodgers, that's a serious change to your business model," said sports media consultant Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. "Those are the two premier sports properties in the L.A. market. That's why Fox is taking the strong position that it is."

Without those two teams, Fox would probably face pressure from cable companies to drop the rates it charges.

In a bankruptcy filing last week, Fox alleged that an early sale of the Dodgers' television rights would "significantly increase the chance" that it would lose its rights to the team after 2013. The company also said that satellite and cable operators would "use their negotiating leverage to force Fox to shut down Prime Ticket and move its remaining programming … to Fox Sports West."

Fox lost some of its best college football and basketball programming in a new agreement announced in May among Fox, ESPN and the Pac-12 Conference. And beyond that, it lost the perception of being the exclusive network of the most influential college league in the West.

"It's a great new contract for the league," Maestas said, "but it put ESPN in the same conversation with Fox as far as exposure of the league."

Fox lost the Galaxy after giving team owner AEG permission to speak to Time Warner about the team's television rights, even though three years remained on its current contract.

AEG also owns the Kings hockey team, and Tim Leiweke, AEG's president, said talks have begun about those broadcast rights even though four years remain on that team's contract with Fox.

Time Warner's willingness to pay $55 million for soccer broadcasts, which don't even match the modest ratings of pro hockey, shows the value of sports to networks searching for around-the-clock programming to warrant their subscriber fees, media experts said.

"Right now, sports is the only destination programming left," Maestas said. "People will record almost anything else except maybe the Academy Awards or the Grammys."

David Rone, president of Time Warner Sports, says soccer viewership in all forms — MLS, international and World Cup — is on the rise. Another reason Time Warner is willing to commit so much money to the Galaxy, he said, is because it is a team that attracts viewers to both the company's English- and Spanish-language channels.

Over the last three seasons, Galaxy ratings grew 27% on Fox Sports West while viewership for the network's Dodgers and Angels broadcasts fell by 10%. And Galaxy matches on FS Deportes have averaged 71% more than an average MLS game.

With their immense popularity in the Southland's Latino communities, the Dodgers are well positioned to benefit from a new Spanish-language cable channel.

Said Maestas: "Baseball, with its 162 games and its popularity with Spanish-speakers, is dream programming" for a regional sports network.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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