Baseball seems unlikely to rally from TV loss


If you're one of those people who believe that baseball salaries and stadium prices are already too high, you can't have been too happy to hear last about last week's decision by ABC and NBC to end the year-old Baseball Network.

Why? Because, contrary to public perception, it's television money and not ticket prices that pay the biggest part of the freight for sports salaries, and the end of The Baseball Network pretty much ensures that there will be fewer TV bucks floating around for the foreseeable future. Operating costs aren't going down any time soon, and someone will have to pony up some more dough.

Guess who is the most obvious target?

The owners likely have convinced themselves that Fox and/or CBS will pay big dollars for broadcast rights, forgetting a few pertinent facts:

* The presence of ABC and NBC in The Baseball Network meant that there were two networks working with Major League Baseball in the advertising marketplace to get a good price. However, both networks not only have taken themselves out of The Baseball Network framework, but also out of a new contract, meaning whoever gets the new deal will have to work against the other three for ad dollars in a tough market, making a big-money deal hard to finance. Beyond that, the winner of a two-party bidding war will pay far less than the winner of a four-party scrum.

* Though it could use baseball to re-establish itself as a big-time presence in the sports biz, CBS likely will be reluctant to bid high, remembering the estimated $500 million it lost after its disastrous, four-year foray with baseball in the early 1990s. CBS officials also likely haven't forgotten how their pleas for rebates during that time fell on deaf ears.

* Fox has shown a willingness to overbid for properties -- see the NFL and the NHL -- but each of those sports has demographics that make them attractive to a network and advertisers. These days, baseball has little relevancy to the youth market, the core of the Fox constituency.

* In the coming two years, the 2000 Summer Olympics and the 2002 Winter Olympics will come up for bid, and both likely will require an American TV network to bid at least $350 million to get them. Fox owner Rupert Murdoch is said to crave the rights to the 2000 Games, which will take place in his native Australia, as the final piece to putting his network on the map. And the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the first Winter Olympics in the United States since 1980, probably will get all four networks bidding.

Even the World Series, the crown jewel of baseball programming, can't put up the kind of ratings numbers that a night of figure skating can, and a network honcho would be foolish to turn down the chance at another Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan tete-a-tete to throw money at a sport that is widely perceived as being in great trouble.

Martina's big splash

What else does the world's greatest tennis tournament need to attract television attention? How about the greatest female player ever to grace its lawn commenting from the booth?

When HBO kicks off its 21st year of Wimbledon coverage today at 9 a.m., Martina Navratilova, a nine-time All England singles champion, will launch her broadcasting career, joining Jim Lampley, Billie Jean King, Larry Merchant and others.

Anyone who has heard Navratilova's usual candor and bluntness has no doubt that HBO has hit a winner right down the line.

"Martina will be great," said King, Navratilova's former coach and longtime friend. "She remembers everything. If nothing else, she can pronounce all the European names. It's wonderful that she'll be with us."

That is, when Navratilova, who has retired from singles play, isn't trying to win a doubles crown with partner Steffi Graf.

"They won't be missing me, and hopefully I'll be able to add to what we're talking about when I'm [in the locker room]," said Navratilova.

The HBO Wimbledon schedule calls for live coverage each weekday this week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a nightly, one-hour recap show at 7.

Hitting the road

Ted Patterson and Spiro Morekas take their "SportsNight" show on WWLG (1360 AM) to Palermo's Grille in Timonium tonight and every other Monday to talk football with former Colts Tom Matte and Bruce Laird from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

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