News Column

Comcast Launches Astros, Rockets Channel in Houston

Oct. 10, 2012

Bob Fernandez

baseball

Fifteen years after it first televised the Phillies, Flyers, and Sixers games on its own regional sports network in Philadelphia, Comcast Corp. has launched its 11th sports channel in a partnership with Major League Baseball's Houston Astros and the National Basketball Association's Rockets.

The 24-hour Houston channel went live Oct. 1 from Houston's Pavilions entertainment-and-dining district and adds to a rapidly growing multibillion-dollar regional sports network industry.

Although the channels are popular with TV viewers, there are now concerns that multiple networks televising different teams within the same TV market -- a recent development -- will add to future cable-TV bills as consumers pay for the channels in their bundled TV bill.

New York has SNY, Yes, and MSG, which respectively televise the Mets, Yankees, and Knicks. Los Angeles has five channels, three of them launched this year, and Houston now has two.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable-TV operator with about 800,000 subscribers in Houston, reportedly owns about 20 percent of the new Houston channel and operates the network's studios. The Astros and the Rockets are majority owners, with a combined 80 percent stake.

Fox Sports previously televised Astros and Rockets games on Fox Sports Southwest, which was distributed to nine million pay-TV homes in Texas and surrounding states.

Fox Sports Southwest has retained the TV rights to the Texas Rangers and the other Dallas pro teams. "Fox Sports Southwest is one of our strongest [regional sports networks] and it will continue to be without the Astros and Rockets," Fox spokesman Chris Bellitti said in a statement on Tuesday.

"We made a very substantial offer to keep the teams, but they have decided to go in a different direction." He noted that the other pro teams televised on Fox Sports Southwest "are fully distributed in their TV territories" on the Fox channel.

Comcast's goal now is to broaden distribution of the new channel to other cable-TV providers in the Houston area and to DirecTV and Dish Network before the first regular-season Rockets game on Oct. 31.

Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas in Austin, said Comcast SportsNet Houston should be successful, though some people could miss Rockets games if their current pay-TV distributor failed to reach an agreement with Comcast to carry the channel.

Generally, though, residents won't be bothered with the shift to Comcast from Fox, Cramer said. "People in Houston, as long as they are getting their Astros and Rockets, couldn't care less who they are getting the games from," he said.

The new channel is a potential windfall for the Astros and Rockets owners because successful sports networks, such as the Yankees' Yes Network in New York, can be as valuable as the teams because of the economics of the pay-TV business.

The Astros changed ownership in 2011 for between $600 million and $700 million. The franchise's new lead owner is Jim Crane, the chairman and founder of Crane Worldwide Logistics, according to the Astros website. The Rockets' longtime owner is Leslie Alexander, who purchased the team in 1993.

Jon Litner, group president of the NBC Sports Group with direct responsibility over regional sports networks and the Golf Channel, said the joint ownership of Comcast SportsNet Houston allows the cable-caster, the Rockets, and the Astros to share the potential risks and benefits of the media venture.

"Comcast as a company likes the regional sports network business, and I think there is goodwill associated with a regional sports network where Comcast has a cable business, especially when the teams are winning," Litner said.

Comcast regional sports networks are now part of the NBC Sports Group, part of Comcast-controlled NBCUniversal. Comcast owns 51 percent of NBCUniversal but is expected to acquire the remaining 49 percent from General Electric over the next several years.

Among those Comcast executives who helped launch Houston was Tom Stathakes, architect of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia and Comcast's other regional sports channels.

Litner said the goal of the new regional sports network is "to serve Houston sports market in a voice that the fan wants to hear."



Source: (c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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