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Most Dodger fans to be shut out from viewing games on opening day

Richard Magnuson has been rooting for the Dodgers since 1959 and hasn't missed an opening day on television since 1970.

That streak is likely to come to an end Saturday when the Dodgers start the 2014 regular season with a pair of games against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia.

Magnuson, a retired architect living in Manhattan Beach, is not alone. About 70% of the Los Angeles television market won't be able to see Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw pitch the first game of the season on the team's new channel, SportsNet LA.

Fans are caught in a rundown. On one side are the Dodgers and Time Warner Cable, which is handling distribution of SportsNet LA. On the other side are area pay-TV distributors, which are balking at the price for carrying the channel.

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"I'm angry with the Dodgers management," said Magnuson, a customer of Verizon FiOS. "There are so many fans that won't get to see them anymore."

This disagreement amounts to a virtual shutout. Besides FiOS, other area pay-TV providers that are not carrying SportsNet LA include satellite broadcasters DirecTV and Dish Network, cable companies Cox and Charter and AT&T's U-Verse.

The only operators carrying SportsNet Los Angeles are Time Warner Cable and Bakersfield's Bright House Networks, which has ties to Time Warner Cable.

Until this season, the Dodgers sold the rights to their games to Fox's Prime Ticket and the local television station KCAL-TV Channel 9. That meant about 50 games were still on free TV for fans without a cable subscription.

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But the team's new owners, Guggenheim Baseball, wanted to control their own television destiny. When the Prime Ticket and KCAL deals were up, Time Warner Cable agreed to an $8.35-billion, 25-year deal to run SportsNet LA, according to a valuation by the Dodgers and Major League Baseball.

Last year, KCAL and Prime Ticket paid a total of about $50 million for Dodgers' rights.

The new deal has been valued at $210 million for the first season, a rate that escalates each year through the life of the contract.

That increase in fees means increased costs to distributors that agree to carry the channel — and inevitably to consumers.

Prime Ticket currently charges distributors close to $3 per subscriber a month, according to SNL Kagan, an industry consulting firm. Time Warner Cable is seeking more than $4 per subscriber, according to people familiar with the matter, and those fees will escalate, distribution executives say.

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Some Dodger loyalists are making the switch. Laura Stegman is dropping Dish Network, her current provider, for Time Warner Cable because she can't bear the thought of not being able to watch Vin Scully call games.

"Without Vin, life has very little meaning," she said.

Stegman, who lives on the Westside, is exercising an option that is not open to all Los Angeles-area residents, many of whom don't have the choice of a different provider. Some of them are mad at the Dodgers for leaving them in the lurch.

"I don't even have that option to go to Time Warner Cable. I'm stuck with Charter," grumbled David Thornton of Azusa Canyon, adding that both Time Warner Cable and the Dodgers "didn't look out for the fans" when making their deal.

Time Warner Cable Executive Vice President Melinda Witmer said the company is having "meaningful and creative" conversations with distributors and is confident that once the season really gets going, deals will happen.

"It is no surprise to me that deals are not concluded at this point," she said.

Distributors have said they would be willing to carry SportsNet LA if they could offer it to consumers on an a la carte basis, so customers who aren't sports fans don't have to pick up the bill.

"When the pricing for broad carriage is substantially higher than the true value, it is only fair to permit only the fans who want to pay for it to have the option and not tax everyone else, which is the vast majority of consumers," said Dan York, chief content officer for DirecTV, which has around 1.2 million subscribers in the region.

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Witmer countered, "We are comfortable that what we are offering is fair and at reasonable market terms."

As for selling the channel on an a la carte basis, she noted that no one else does that either — including DirecTV, which owns sports channels in Seattle and Pittsburgh.

Feuds between content providers and content distributors have become commonplace in the media industry. Most are eventually settled amicably, albeit typically with customers seeing bigger bills.

In 2012, Time Warner Cable was in a similar situation with SportsNet, a channel it launched after it acquired the television rights for the Lakers. Many distributors resisted carrying it until after the season started. But then when the idea of not having the Lakers seemed a bigger risk than raising prices, agreements were reached.

In some cases, though, the rising costs to carry sports have led distributors to push back. In Houston, a regional sports network co-owned by cable giant Comcast Corp. and the Astros and Rockets filed for bankruptcy after other distributors balked at the high fees to carry the channel.

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"I think the industry has come to tipping point on sports costs," said Andy Albert, senior vice president of content acquisitions for Cox Communications.

In Los Angeles, where there are already five regional sports channels, customers pay as much as $20 for these channels and ESPN whether they watch them or not.

The Dodgers are optimistic that in the end the channel will get wide distribution.

"We've watched this in city after city. Invariably it gets worked out," said Dodger President Stan Kasten, speaking by phone from Australia. "We know there's strong demand for Dodger baseball."

As for the lack of games on free television hurting financially strapped fans, Kasten said most people now consume television via pay TV. "It is just a part of modern business."

That doesn't wash with all the fans.

"I don't care if the Dodgers start with a 25-0 record, I'm not going to call DirecTV and ask that they please carry the station," said George Newberry of San Pedro, who has been following the team since 1958. "I see this as nothing but greed from Time Warner Cable, and the Dodgers are contributing to it."

The long-term implications of all these deals have some observers worried that sports — once a common denominator that cut across economic status — will become too expensive for many people.

"Many fans have been priced out of the venue and onto their couches," said David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "Now some of them are being priced out of their couches."

In the meantime, fans such as Magnuson are digging out their old radios, where they can still listen to the Dodgers play.

"It's hard to get used to again," he said.

joe.flint@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.

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