08 May 2008

Get a cable sports network for (almost) free

Come 2010 or shortly thereafter, the A's may find themselves in a very good situation, and they won't need to do anything to make it happen.

All of the local (non-NFL) teams other than the Giants are due to have their current agreements with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (formerly FSNBA) expire around the end of the decade. That will put the Sharks, Warriors, and A's in situations that could allow for partnerships or competition. The natural awkwardness of having the Sharks and Warriors on the same network will likely end. Therefore, one will probably stay with CSNBA and one will leave. Where does that leave the A's?

An opportunity may arise that could fit perfectly for the A's. It would be a different channel, one that already exists pretty much everywhere in Northern California. That channel is...

Comcast SportsNet West

What is this channel, you ask? It's the home of the Sacramento Kings. As you can see from the table below, its availability is pretty much on par with CSNBA (except for the Bay Area, where it's on digital cable only).

CSNW's ownership situation is similar to that of CSNBA in that the marquee team (Kings as opposed to Giants) owns a share of the network. It would be easy for the A's to talk to both the Kings and Comcast about carriage on CSNW, which could make for a more comprehensive broadcast rights deal that ensures more games throughout the region. They could even severely limit over-the-air broadcasts (TV36) more than their current deal and move the vast majority of games to CSNW. That would prove beneficial to CSNW since they'd get a greater amount of programming (outside of the Kings' season it's sparse to say the least).

The future of the Kings, unfortunately, is uncertain. While the Maloof brothers have publicly stated that they want to work out a deal in Sacramento and have reportedly been talking privately with Sacramento officials about a new arena deal, it's definitely an uphill battle - especially with a mayor's race this year including former Suns and Cal point guard Kevin Johnson. The Maloofs don't appear to be willing to privately finance much of a new arena, and they didn't support the two 2006 ballot initiatives to publicly finance an arena on the railyards near downtown.

Meanwhile, last August Harrah's and AEG announced a plan to build a 20,000-seat arena just east of the Vegas Strip, behind Paris and Bally's. The arena will be built on-spec, in other words it doesn't have a marquee tenant. AEG and Harrah's say that they should be able to fill up the venue with numerous acts, but they are aiming for either a basketball or hockey team to call it home 41+ times a year starting in 2010. AEG already has another built-on-spec arena under its management, Sprint Center in Kansas City.

Both David Stern and Gary Bettman have been actively working on moving or adding a team to the Las Vegas market. Stern's done a good job putting the Tim Donaghy scandal to bed, and Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman may prefer the NBA over the NHL due to its higher profile (money, ratings). So while the Maloofs say the right things, an arena is going to rise that fits their needs (that they don't have to finance) and allows them to stop using the corporate jet to attend games in Cowtown.

Should the Kings leave for Vegas, they would have to divest themselves of CSNW. Who would be in a great position to step into the Kings' ownership stake? The A's, of course. That would put the A's in the position they've wanted for so long: their own network with few startup costs and no need to jostle for position with the Giants and the other Bay Area teams. They can create further tie-ins with the Rivercats and their broadcasts while fostering growth throughout all of NorCal. And they could create a partnership with or bid for broadcast rights from either the Warriors (who are showing signs of wanting to leave CSNBA) or the Sharks (who could also benefit from some elbow room).

Now I know what you're asking. First, wouldn't the Kings leaving be awful? Of course it would. The team has been the soul of the state capital for over two decades. ARCO Arena is a charming and intimate setting. It's also woefully outdated and was built on the cheap. If Stern and the owners are willing to allow the Sonics to be ripped out of the Seattle community, don't think they won't hesitate to do the same to a city whose team has only been present half as long. Second, what about the A's moving to Sacramento? I've already given plenty of reasons why that won't work, the least of which is: If Sacramento can't figure out a way to share the burden on a new Kings arena, how would they get it done on a larger and more expensive baseball stadium (sorry, expanding Raley Field won't cut it in the long run).

What we have right now is a waiting game. The A's are waiting out the EIR process in Fremont. They're waiting out the end of their CSNBA contract to make a move on their own. The NBA and the Maloofs are waiting out this new arena in Sin City and political dealings in Sacramento to determine the Kings' fate. AEG and Harrah's are waiting out two leagues and various teams to see if one will fill their new arena. None of this can be determined right away. Come 2010, expect to see these parties move quickly.

Update 5/10: Cal Expo and the NBA have announced a plan to build a new arena for the Kings on the Expo Fairgrounds, which would be financed by proceeds coming from the development of the Fairgrounds area. On the surface, the deal appears to be structured similar to what the Tampa Bay Rays are planning with the Tropicana Field site. On May 21, the Expo board will decide whether or not to move forward with the plan. While I like the fact that David Stern, who took over from the Maloofs in negotiating with Cal Expo, timing appears to be rather late considering the state of the economy - and especially the real estate market in Santa Clara. There's plenty of time to figure out how long it will take and the contingencies they can build in. It's definitely a more difficult plan to pull off than Cisco Field and the baseball village, but if there's one person in sports I wouldn't bet against, it's David Stern.