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Fox could sweep games


Five years after resuming the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week franchise, Fox may be poised to snare the entire baseball television broadcast package, with the World Series, both League Championship Series, all four Division Series and the All-Star Game included with the Saturday schedule.

Fox's offer, said to amount to nearly $2.5 billion over six years beginning next season, would knock NBC and ESPN out of the playoff picture and return all of baseball's premier events under a single network roof for the first time since 1993, when CBS completed a four-year, $1 billion deal.

Dan Bell, a Fox spokesman, said the network is in negotiations with baseball for a new deal, but added that nothing has been finalized and declined to comment further.

However, network sources said that NBC, which has alternated airing the World Series, one of the League Championship Series and the All-Star Game with Fox over the last five years, and ESPN, which airs up to seven Division Series games, has until 5 p.m. today to match the portion of Fox's offer that covers the postseason, said to be around $180 million annually, more than double the $80 million NBC currently pays for the playoffs.

Baseball had reportedly been seeking triple the $1.15 billion it receives annually from Fox and NBC for their packages for a new contract, but had been rebuffed from all parties, including CBS and ABC.

Still , the roughly $417 million average annual worth of the package represents about a 45 percent jump from the $290 million the old deals totaled ($120 million for Fox's postseason rights and Saturday games of the week, $47 million for regular-season games on cable channels Fox Sports Net and F/X, $80 million for NBC's postseason, and $43 million for ESPN's postseason package).

Fox is expected to place some Division Series games on Fox Sports Net and F/X. The new proposed Fox deal does not impact the $800 million six-year deal that baseball struck with ESPN for regular-season games that kicked in this year.

Though World Series and playoff ratings have fallen in recent years, the monthlong telecast of postseason games gives networks the opportunity to promote its fall entertainment lineup to a larger audience that is dominated by men, the most difficult viewers to lure to the television set during prime time.

In fact, the desire to attract more male viewers was a chief reason CBS sought to get back into football two years ago, after losing its NFL package to Fox in 1994. CBS took the AFC away from NBC, and won the prime-time race last season. Fox, which has traditionally run fourth in overall prime-time viewership to ABC, CBS and NBC, could use the baseball platform to introduce its shows to new viewers.

The Fox/baseball contract is the latest in a series of deals involving booming rights fees, beginning in 1995, when NBC secured the rights to five straight Summer and Winter Olympics, beginning with the current Games in Sydney for $3.5 billion. Three years ago, the NBA agreed to four-year deals with NBC ($1.75 billion) and Turner Broadcasting ($890 million) for a total of $2.64 billion.

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