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Relief for long-suffering Dodgers fans? Don't bet on new TV deals for SportsNet LA

Relief for long-suffering Dodgers fans? Don't bet on new TV deals for SportsNet LA
Charter Communications distributes SportsNet LA, the El Segundo-based television channel owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Four years ago, the prospect of a major media merger fueled speculation that fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers would finally get to see their favorite team on television.

The thinking went like this: A new media player in town would resolve the bitter stalemate that has limited distribution of the Dodgers-owned television channel, SportsNet LA. But four years and four mergers later, the channel still is available on only one pay-TV service in Southern California: Charter Communications, which brands itself as Spectrum.

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AT&T Inc. late Thursday finalized its $85.4-billion purchase of Time Warner Inc. The closing came just two days after a federal judge in Washington ruled that AT&T’s long-awaited acquisition of the company that owns HBO, CNN and the Warner Bros. studio did not violate antitrust laws, clearing the way for that deal to close.

AT&T also owns DirecTV, the El Segundo-based satellite service that has long served sports super fans and has been the primary holdout in the impasse over the Dodgers channel. Cox Communications — the Atlanta cable company that has customers in the Palos Verdes area, southern Orange County and parts of San Diego County — also has refused to carry SportsNet LA. Dish Network, the other satellite TV service, and Frontier Communications have shown no interest either.

AT&T acquired DirecTV nearly three years ago amid the first wave of media mergers. But the Dallas telecommunications company has refused to negotiate a deal to add SportsNet LA to its lineup, citing the cost of the channel.

The Dodgers’ front office has long been frustrated that DirecTV hasn’t struck a deal with Charter, which has managed distribution rights for the channel since 2016.

"We are hoping that now with this merger, AT&T will sit down and hammer out a deal with Charter so that Dodger fans will be able to see the Dodgers on AT&T and DirecTV," Lon Rosen, executive vice president of the Dodgers organization, said this week.

But there is little indication that AT&T has softened its stance toward carrying the channel. In fact, AT&T is not expected to pick up SportsNet LA after it buys Time Warner, according to two people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to discuss it. On Thursday, an AT&T representative said, “We continue to have no comment.”

What’s more, the Time Warner purchase will add to AT&T’s staggering debt load and analysts expect that AT&T will be looking to slash costs — not add new ones. AT&T will have $249 billion in debt after the deal closes, according to the MoffettNathanson research firm.

There has long been confusion about which company has the rights to the Dodgers’ games. Nearly identical corporate names and a spate of mergers have muddied the situation. Time Warner — the company just acquired by AT&T — does not hold the rights to the Dodgers channel. Those television rights initially belonged to a different company: Time Warner Cable.

Until a 2009 spinoff, the cable company was part of the Time Warner empire. But even after it became a stand-alone company, Time Warner Cable held onto its brand name — sowing confusion.

Two Time Warner Cable executives — Robert Marcus and Melinda Witmer — negotiated the staggering 25-year, $8.35-billion contract with Guggenheim Baseball Management, which owns the Dodgers. But those executives left the company when Time Warner Cable was absorbed by Charter.

There have been other changes too — seismic shifts in the television industry that have diminished SportsNet LA’s prospects of getting wider carriage any time soon.

“The market has changed,” said Adam Gajo, sports analyst for Kagan, a media research arm within S&P Global Market Intelligence. “Four or five years ago, when SportsNet LA was formed, it was all about getting mass distribution. Executives figured that people wanted their sports and would pay to watch them. There was almost no ceiling to the cost.”

But the debacle over the Dodgers channel changed the calculus for the entire industry, Gajo said. SportsNet LA is one of the highest-priced local sports channels in the nation — only YES, the channel that carries the New York Yankees, and Fox Sports Detroit have higher prices than SportsNet LA, according to Kagan. (ESPN, which is available nationwide, is priced at more than $7 per month per subscriber home.)

Charter, the distributor of the Dodgers channel as well as the carrier, has offered SportsNet LA to other pay-TV companies for $4.95 per month per subscriber home. YES is priced at $6.37 per month per subscriber home, according to Kagan. Most non-sports cable channels are offered for less than $1 per month per subscriber home.

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The $8.35-billion distribution deal for the Dodgers channel was structured about five years ago — before the television industry fully grasped the effect of cord-cutting. Sports teams have seen what happened with the Dodgers channel, Gajo said, and teams have decided to be less aggressive in increasing their TV rights fees out of concern that they could lose TV distribution — and alienate fans.

Although teams still demand fee increases, the price increases have “calmed down,” Gajo said.

“SportsNet LA was the turning point,” he said. “Other teams looked at the situation and said, ‘Hey, this might not work. We could make a lot of money, but we could lose the next generation of fans.’ They are starting to look at the bigger picture.”

One long-time Dodgers fan, Adrian Trejo, had been hopeful that the latest merger might mean that he could finally watch the team play on DirecTV. But the prospect of another shutout season “stinks,” he said Thursday.

“For both the Dodgers organization and DirecTV, now merged with Time Warner, to not make this happen and deprive so many loyal fans of Dodger telecasts is such a disappointment and failure on so many levels,” Trejo said. “I used to attend at least half a dozen games a year. [But] I feel no connection to any of the players because I don’t watch the games! I didn’t go to one game last year.”

Top AT&T and Time Warner executives, during a six-week trial this spring in Washington, were candid about challenges facing the pay-TV industry.

Subscriber “declines started faster than many in the industry anticipated,” U.S. District Judge Richard Leon wrote in his 172-page ruling to allow the AT&T-Time Warner merger to go forward.

For example, AT&T lost 133,000 pay-TV subscribers from its DirecTV and U-Verse services in 2016. “Last year, DirecTV alone lost 1.2 million subscribers,” Leon wrote.

Industry executives, including those at DirecTV, have shifted their focus away from offering as many TV channels as possible to tailoring smaller packages of channels and launching lower-cost streaming services with a few dozen networks. AT&T launched its DirecTV Now streaming service in November 2016; that service also doesn’t include SportsNet LA.

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For its part, the Stamford, Conn.-based Charter has used the limited distribution of the Dodgers channel as a marketing hook. Charter is available to an estimated 90% of Los Angeles County.

"Other distributors are not expected to carry SportsNet LA this season,” Charter said in a statement. “If customers want to see Dodgers games, they should subscribe to Spectrum so they can watch our award-winning programming.”

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