MLB can play hardball if record ratings hold up

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Now batting: Major League Baseball's postseason, which began Oct. 4 with eight teams, including four from the five biggest markets in the U.S.

On deck: The possibility of a third straight year of record ratings and a grand slam of a bargaining chip for MLB when national broadcast rights with News Corp.'s Fox expire in 2006.

"Look at what Major League Baseball was able to get from ESPN when they reupped on the cable deal," one network executive said. "If the playoffs do another great number, you have to believe baseball can get a similar deal from Fox-or somebody else."

MLB and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN signed an eight-year, $2.4 billion extension last month that gives the cable network 80 regular-season games a year as well as some selected playoff games. The average of $296 million a year for Sunday, Monday and Wednesday night games is a 51% increase over the six-year contract that was worth $197 million per season.

All indications are that Fox wants to retain the national contract, which gives the network selected divisional-playoff games and exclusivity on the league championship series and the World Series. Fox's six-year, $2.5 billion deal expires after next season.

"There are a lot of positive things happening with baseball," Fox Sports President Ed Goren said. "We have a 10-year history. I don't see one year [of ratings] making a difference."

But if the ratings go up again, it would be the third consecutive year of increases. And baseball dealt itself the poker equivalent of a full house with the teams that made the playoffs.

In the American League, the New York Yankees opened against the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago White Sox played the Boston Red Sox-hometown teams in four of the top five TV markets.

Throw in the Atlanta Braves vs. the Houston Astros in the first round of the National League Division Series last week and you have six of the top 10. St. Louis, the No. 21 market, and San Diego, the No. 26 market, squared off in the other N.L. series.

Indeed, nearly every team has a back story. Boston won for the first time since 1918 last year, and is trying to repeat. Chicago hasn't even been in a World Series since 1959. St. Louis is trying to win its first since 1982. Houston has never been in one.

Fox's first national telecast was Game One of the Yankees-Angels series in prime time. It earned a 7.5/11 Nielsen rating, up from a 6.8/10 from the comparable game last year.

Hoping to keep up the momentum, MLB broke an ad campaign last week using its familiar "I Live For This!" tagline with a postseason twist, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York.

Buyers said ESPN gets about $50,000 a :30 for prime time games; half that in daytime

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