BASEBALL NETWORK FACES TOUGH INNINGS

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The Baseball Network has had some hits in its first year at bat, signing impressive multiyear ad deals with big leaguers like General Motors Corp. and Anheuser-Busch.

Last week, Gatorade came on board and Coca-Cola Co., Nike and Reebok International are believed to be close to signing on.

But with three weeks left before its first network TV telecast, the rookie joint venture of ABC, NBC and Major League Baseball faces a few curve balls. Among them: the fact that Fox Sports executives already are quietly campaigning to pick up baseball rights if the venture doesn't meet its initial two-year sales goal of about $330 million.

For this season, the Baseball Network is believed to have sold only about half of its total ad time. The rest probably will have to be sold in scatter deals.

"We're not finished," said Mike Trager, exec VP-sales, adding about 35% remains to be sold.

Mr. Trager said the Baseball Network is less concerned with selling out than with holding ad rates.

However, once the season starts, media buyers will likely move to grab up valuable post-season ad units, leaving the Baseball Network with a glut of time in its regular season prime-time coverage.

But much rests on whether there's a players' strike. Baseball Network executives are assuring advertisers if there is a strike, it will be resolved before the post-season, which accounts for about 75% of the venture's ad revenues.

Some baseball followers aren't so sanguine, noting there is a wide rift between players and team owners.

The owners and players will meet again July 11-the day before the All-Star Game, the network's first telecast-and at that time the union is expected to announce plans for a strike.

Some believe team owners might settle before fall to salvage valuable post-season revenues. But others believe owners may hold out in hopes of abolishing salary arbitration and establishing a player salary cap.

Should that occur, with no inventory other than baseball, the Baseball Network would be forced to return money to advertisers.

"It looks like it could be a very short season for [the Baseball Network]. And if the players strike, it will kill them," said an agency media executive who has a significant deal with the venture.

While the Baseball Network has a six-year contract, team owners have an option to cancel the venture if it hasn't grossed about $330 million after two years, and that could be difficult to do if there's a strike this year. That's where Fox comes in.

"What Rupert Murdoch wants to do, he usually gets done," a team owner opposed to the Baseball Network deal told Advertising Age. He said team owners now would be more open to a traditional TV rights bid.

"I think we played right into the hands of ABC and NBC. This is a good deal for them, but it's a significant drop for us," said the owner.

Fox executives would make a strong pitch for how Fox could promote baseball among its core audience of young male viewers and the worldwide support Mr. Murdoch could provide.

"It's not just about Fox. It's about the Fox Latin America channel. Star TV in Asia and Sky in the U.K.," said a Fox Sports executive. "Right now, baseball is not a very global sport and the Baseball Network deal doesn't help it any. We wouldn't just do a baseball deal for the U.S. We'd do it for the whole world."

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