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Yankees fans strike out as YES Network-Comcast battle heats up

New York Yankees fans soon might get a taste of the Dodger blues.

Baseball fans in 900,000 homes in New Jersey, Connecticut and parts of Pennsylvania that are served by Comcast Corp. are expected to miss the start of the baseball season for their favorite team because of an increasingly contentious dispute over carriage of the YES Network.

Although Comcast had carried the YES Network for more than a decade, the cable provider dropped the Yankees channel from its lineup in mid-November after the completion of the last baseball season.

Comcast now contends the distribution fee is too expensive when considering the audience levels for the channel.

21st Century Fox, which owns 80% of the channel, is fighting back.

Beginning Wednesday, Fox plans to blanket metropolitan New York with TV, radio, billboards and print advertisements that encourage Yankees fans to cut the Comcast cord and sign up for TV service from DirecTV or Verizon FiOS. Both of those companies carry YES.

"The Yankees are a special team and they have loyal fans, and we thought it was our duty to tell people that they need to switch," Tracy Dolgin, chief executive of the YES Network, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

On the West Coast, Dodgers fans who receive their TV service from DirecTV, Verizon, Dish Network or Cox Communications still do not have access to SportsNet LA, the TV channel owned by the Dodgers organization and distributed by Time Warner Cable.

It will be the third season that the Dodgers channel is not available in a majority of homes in the Los Angeles region.

YES and SportsNet LA are the two most expensive regional sports channels in the U.S., according to consulting firm SNL Kagan.

The Yankees channel is the most expensive, priced at slightly more than $5 a month per subscriber home. SportsNet LA is slightly less expensive, offered for about $4.90 a month per subscriber in Los Angeles, according to an SNL Kagan analysis.

The YES Network-Comcast dispute represents another skirmish in TV landscape as pay-TV providers push back on the rising cost of sports channels. In the past, most providers, including Comcast, swallowed the fees because they didn't want to alienate sports fans.

But these days, pay-TV operators are more concerned about losing customers who are not hard-core sports fans. Customers are tired of paying increasingly higher cable bills and they are threatening to dump their subscriptions in favor of low-cost Internet streaming options.

Pay-TV providers are struggling to keep a lid on programming costs.

The Comcast-YES Network flap is unusual because Comcast had carried the channel for years. In addition, the company had a hand-shake agreement with Fox more than a year ago to pay the higher rate that Fox has been demanding.

The politics were different when that tentative agreement was made. Last year, Comcast was planning to acquire Time Warner Cable -- a major TV distributor in New York City -- and Comcast needed the blessing of federal regulators as well as regulators in New York state.

However, the federal government blocked the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Instead of becoming the largest pay-TV provider in the New York region, Comcast remained the fourth-largest provider, concentrating on communities in Connecticut and New Jersey.

"Given the customer viewership data we have, the price/value proposition for the YES Network did not justify the price that Fox was asking for the network," Comcast spokesman John Demming said in a statement.

Comcast's analysis, conducted last summer and fall, found that a majority of subscribers watched fewer than four Yankee games a month during the season.

"Well over 90% of our 900,000-plus customers who receive YES Network didn't watch the equivalent of even one-quarter of those games during the season, even while the Yankees were in the hunt for a playoff berth," Comcast's Demming said.

Dolgin, the CEO of YES, said Comcast's arguments don't add up.

"It's clear that it is not that price is too high," Dolgin said, adding that other major pay-TV providers agreed to pay that same price and that Comcast also paid the higher rate throughout the 2015 season.

Comcast continues to carry a competing channel that broadcasts New York Mets games, Dolgin said. Comcast has an ownership stake in that channel. (SNL Kagan data shows that the monthly fee for that channel, SportsNet NY, is roughly half that of the YES Network).

"I don't see that it is very likely to get a deal done with them," Dolgin said. "We need to let the fanatical Yankee fans know that if they don't switch to another provider, they are going to miss out. And once you miss a game, you miss history." 


Twitter: @MegJamesLAT

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