DirecTV might not possess only ticket for Extra Innings

The Baltimore Sun

Even before the deal was announced, Major League Baseball was feeling political heat over its pending agreement to award the Extra Innings television rights exclusively to DirecTV.

So yesterday, when MLB officially unveiled the DirecTV deal, it apparently tried to turn down the heat. This arrangement for Extra Innings - the package of out-of-market games that allows an Orioles fan living in Austin, Texas, to follow his favorite team - might turn out not to be exclusive to DirecTV.

The In Demand cable service and another satellite provider, Dish Network, are being given the opportunity to negotiate for Extra Innings, MLB chief operating officer Bob DuPuy said during yesterday's conference call.

However, the president of In Demand, Robert Jacobson, speaking to the Associated Press, sounded pessimistic about reaching an agreement because of "conditions for carriage that MLB and DirecTV designed to be impossible for cable and Dish to meet."

MLB's contract with DirecTV runs seven years, reportedly for $100 million a year, and includes the launch of a baseball channel in 2009.

Baseball was faced with an image problem after news broke about the DirecTV deal. The perception: The Lords of Baseball were forcing hordes of fans to switch from cable to satellite, while other hordes of fans would be disenfranchised because they didn't have access to DirecTV.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate.

But Steve Solomon, a former ABC Sports executive and now a broadcasting consultant, said there was an incorrect "notion this is taking a large number of games from the public.

"From my perspective, it was a balancing act for baseball between the economics and the limited number of fans" the new deal would affect. "It's a bit of a tempest in a teapot."

So how many people would a DirecTV-exclusive deal end up affecting? According to a report in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Extra Innings had 500,000 subscribers in 2006, and more than half - 270,000 - were DirecTV customers.

As DuPuy noted yesterday, the Extra Innings package has no effect on telecasts via local broadcast stations, regional sports networks, Fox, ESPN, TBS or WGN. So, yes, it's a good thing that MLB is giving a second satellite provider and cable TV another chance to go Extra Innings. But we're talking maybe 250,000 households spread out across the whole country, which, according to Nielsen, has 111.4 million TV households. Not even one rating point's worth.

Tempest in a teapot? Maybe more like a teacup.

The right number

Some people have called for broadening the NCAA tournament, but ESPN college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb said the NCAA has found the right formula and should stick with it.

"Sixty-five teams are just the right number," he said in a conference call yesterday. If the field were expanded by a dozen or more, "we'd be arguing about the fifth-best team in the Missouri Valley against the 10th team in the ACC."

The way it is, fans love the arguments, "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi said. "Doug and all the analysts get asked all the time" about who will get berths, he said. "They start asking in January."

Fans, Lunardi said, "don't want to take gospel from the [selection] committee. They want to be part of the debate."

Fill in your brackets

CBS' tournament selection show airs Sunday at 6 p.m. (WJZ/Channel 13 and WUSA/Channel 9), with the studio crew of Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis. At some point, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer will join the proceedings and - we can only hope - berate NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee chairman Gary Walters about some slight or injustice, giving people such as me something to keep dredging up through the Final Four.

Fame is fleeting

ESPN's Dick Vitale is a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame, so he obviously has his boosters. Gregg Doyel, who covers college basketball for the CBS SportsLine Web site, is not one of them. Here's some of what Doyel wrote about the man who launched a thousand impressions and popularized the alternative spelling "bay-bee":

"Vitale ... didn't achieve greatness but ... had greatness thrust upon him like a pie thrust upon a clown's face ...

"As for Vitale's influence on the game ...

"It's true, he has become college basketball's most recognized voice. But try something for me, please: Next time you're driving a car, roll down your window. What's the most recognizable voice on the road? The car missing the muffler.

"That's Vitale. He's loud. He's persistent. He talks so much, he can't stop."

Weekend highlights

Golf -- Were you wondering where Annika Sorenstam went to? She makes her first start of the LPGA season in the MasterCard Classic from Mexico City, televised by the Golf Channel (today, 12:30 p.m.; tomorrow and Sunday, 1 p.m.).

Baseball -- We're not advising you skip out on work early to see the Orioles play the Washington Nationals today at 1 p.m. on Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. We're just telling you it's available. The rest is between you and your boss.

Auto racing -- The Nextel Cup series continues Sunday, with Fox's telecast of the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 (4 p.m., WBFF/Channel 45 and WTTG/Channel 5) from Las Vegas. Maryland, take note: These people have racing and slots.

Ray Frager

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