In case you missed it, the Houston Astros announced Friday that they had come to an agreement with Comcast to start a new network to broadcast Astros and Rockets games. This network is set to come online in the fall of 2012 for Rockets games and spring of 2013 for the Astros. We had talked about this possibility earlier this summer in this article, and David Barron does a good job of running down a bunch of the implications here. Now that we know the Astros channel is going to happen, let's break down just what it means for the fans:
More money for the Astros - The Houston franchise and owner Drayton McLane will own a 35 percent share in this new network. Combined with the Rockets, that's 70 percent of the shares going to the teams providing the content. In the short term, this is straight cash flow into the coffers of McLane's team. Don't forget that he can now add the value of that 35 percent stake into the value of the franchise. Before, he was making 50 million for the TV rights. Now, that 50 million becomes an asset as part of the organization, driving up the worth of the franchise. It's a win-win from Drayton's perspective.
Prelude to a sale? - This was the last big piece of business Drayton needed to take care of before he could cash out of this team. I'm not saying he will, mind you. I don't believe he'll leave the Astros until he's good and ready, but he's a good enough businessman to prepare for any contingency. By jettisoning all but one of his big, unwieldy contracts and allowing the team to be a blank slate for new ownership, McLane has made the Astros much more attractive to potential bidders.
Blackouts, blackouts, blackouts - Now that the Astros have a new network, they have to work out distribution deals with all these other cable providers in Texas. Grande Communications, Suddenlink, Time Warner and more have to be convinced to carry this new station, run by a direct competitor. If you followed any of the recent negotiations between Fox Sports and DISH Network or, back a little ways, Time Warner and NFL Network, you'll know these negotiations aren't slam dunks. Sure, the new Astros network has two whole years to reach an agreement with all those distributors, but these things take time. Expect at least one or two of those negotiations to go down to the wire
On-air talent? - This is a little bit further away, but it could come into play at some point before the new Astros network goes live. Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies are under contract to Fox Sports and not the Houston Astros. I have no idea how long their contracts run for. I have no idea whether Fox would want the on-air talent without the Astros. There are a couple scenarios that I could see happening here. The first, obviously, is that the talent reaches an agreement with Fox to mutually part ways in two years. That's what I hope happens. Another scenario is that someone's deal comes up early, Fox wants a longer one and the two can't reach an agreement. While the jilted part could always joing up with the Astros network early, it'd leave us fans without him in the booth for a year or more. Losing either Brownie or JD would seriously bum me out, even if it were just for a year.
In all actuality, the current broadcast team of Patti Smith, Greg Lucas, Brownie and JD will not likely migrate over. I could see the Astros negotiating a deal to get JD and possibly Brown, but Lucas does a lot of work on Big 12 sports and Patti Smith could certainly get bumped up too. Whatever happens with the current groups, look for some changes to happen because of this deal
Rangers invade Houston? - You probably didn't realize it, but with this one press release, Houston became just as much a battle zone as Central Texas, with the Rangers and Astro vying for the hearts and minds of baseball fans. That means constant battles over which games are shown, etc. I'm set up right now, since I get the Fox Sports Houston feed as well as the Fox Sports Southwest. When I first moved to College Station, though, I often was stuck watching the Rangers, because this market isn't clearly defined. I have a suspicion that Houstonians may start seeing more Rangers content pop up on Fox Sports Houston between now and when the Astros broadcast deal comes to an end. Prepare accordingly.
This is obviously had less to do with the negotiations between Fox Sports and the Astros/Rockets and more about what those two teams wanted. They have had their hearts set on a TV network that they own themselves for years now. Fox would have had to pay them an exorbinant amount of money (and that's taking into account the 1.5 billion they paid the Rangers for their rights over the next 20 years). In the end, having team control was more important than straight income. Will it affect the average fan much? It might. If those companies can't reach an agreement with the new Comcast station in time, fans in Central Texas and on satellite could be blocked out for a period of time. But, that lockout won't last forever, since that new station needs all the fans it can get.
In the end, this will probably be a good thing for Houston baseball fans, since any Rangers fans in H-town will be able to watch their team and the Astros fans will still be able to keep up with the hometown nine. Will a little fan discomfort in the short term be worth it in the long run? I'll let you decide.