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Dodgers have faded from view on TV; will they fade from fans' hearts?

Los Angeles DodgersSportsTelevisionTelevision IndustryBaseballMedia IndustryDirecTV Group Inc.
Many Dodgers fans are shut out by TV impasse, with 70% of Southland viewers without broadcasts
Dodgers vs. Time Warner Cable is no-win situation for fans

Nearly two months into the season, Dodgers fans are coming to grips with the team's being largely absent from television.

The Dodgers have played 44 games yet their TV broadcasts remain off-limits to anyone who doesn't subscribe to Time Warner Cable.

The cable company, which acquired rights to Dodgers games starting this year, has yet to sign deals with other distributors, such as satellite broadcaster DirecTV, to make the games widely available.

Time Warner Cable and the other distributors are still wrangling over price. TWC serves about 1.5 million customers in the Los Angeles area, or roughly 30% of the region's TV audience.

So the bulk of the team's fans, along with Los Angeles-area sports bars that aren't in TWC's service area, continue to do without.

The situation prompts a question: With the Dodgers largely out of sight, could they also soon be out of mind?

The team leads Major League Baseball in attendance with an average of 46,194 tickets sold for 22 home games — about 35,000 from season tickets. But an average of only 45,000 households are watching Dodgers games on TWC, according to Nielsen ratings — a drop of nearly 63%.

With the team performing reasonably well, the reason for the fall clearly is access. Some fans have organized protests and circulated petitions, and many feel that Dodgers ownership needs to act to ensure the problem is solved quickly.

The Dodgers signed a 25-year, $8.35-billion deal with Time Warner Cable to show the team's games on the new all-Dodgers-all-the-time SportsNet LA channel. The Dodgers own the channel but TWC handles its distribution.

Stan Kasten, the Dodgers' team president, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Recent seasons have been a roller coaster for the club's legions of fans, who suffered the saga of previous owner Frank McCourt as he went through a messy divorce and then took the team into bankruptcy. Spirits soared when new ownership spent millions to upgrade the roster and the Dodgers came within two victories of the World Series last season. But now the fans' loyalty is being tested again.

"What are you going to do?" Michele Ghiatis said as she and her husband Steven watched a recent Dodgers-Giants game in the reserved level at Dodger Stadium. "It's taking the fun out of baseball."

The Ghiatises bought a 10-game ticket package at Dodger Stadium this season but have DirecTV at their Los Angeles home, so they can't watch the games there. "I feel like the Dodgers let the fans down," she said.

Asked if some fans might be losing interest, Steven Ghiatis said, "I definitely feel that way. I'm sure they have probably lost some fans."

That resignation is being felt at sports bars, too. "We don't have to give people an explanation, they pretty much know," said A.J. Sacher, regional manager of Barney's Beanery, whose Pasadena and Burbank restaurants are without the games.

"After a while we stopped getting calls" about whether the Dodgers were on TV, he said. "Now it's more like, 'Have you heard anything or is this going to be resolved soon?'"

That's the key question, according to Fred Claire, a former Dodgers general manager who still closely monitors the team. "Ultimately this will be resolved," he said, adding that "the Dodgers and their fans will move beyond it."

However, Claire acknowledged that the TV deadlock could "help dilute interest" in the team, testing the patience of fans, though probably not alienating them entirely.

"Are Dodgers fans going to give up on following the team? I don't believe that because I think the core interest in the Dodgers is so strong," Claire said. "It's more [fans'] frustration of what's taking place. They're rightfully frustrated."

The Dodgers' TV impasse is a familiar experience for Los Angeles sports fans.

In 2012, after Time Warner Cable acquired the rights to the Lakers and launched the SportsNet channel, it didn't strike all the deals required to make Lakers games widespread on TV until after the season started.

A year ago, an average of 121,000 households were watching Dodgers games on Fox-owned Prime Ticket — a channel available throughout the Southland that carried the majority of the Dodgers' games.

While that number has dwindled by nearly two-thirds, viewership of Angels games this season has experienced a 30% jump, according to Nielsen — to an average 88,400 households on widely available Fox Sports West.

Dodgers games are carried on 570 AM radio but it's unclear whether more fans are turning to those broadcasts. The station did not respond to requests for comment and Nielsen said it does not publicly release ratings figures for Dodgers radio. Experts said it was also too early to tell whether the team's merchandise sales would suffer.

Time Warner Cable said in a statement it was "eager for all consumers in the Dodger footprint to have access to SportsNet LA and we hope that providers will come on board soon."

"We will continue to work tirelessly to make that happen," TWC added. "But DirecTV has shown no sense of urgency in getting a deal done."

DirecTV issued its own statement, saying "we remain open to exploring with Time Warner Cable how it can bring Dodgers games back into the homes of families who want them."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles sports fans have been able to focus on the playoff fortunes of basketball's Clippers and hockey's Kings and Ducks.

Dodgers fan Alex Castillo of Newhall, also a Kings fan, said the excitement of the NHL playoffs had helped ease the sting of not being able to view the Dodgers. While attending a recent game at Dodger Stadium, he noted he can't watch the Dodgers at his home because his provider is AT&T U-Verse.

"It hurts, it's my team," Castillo said of the Dodgers. And he was already lamenting what would happen after the NBA and NHL seasons end. "In the summer what are you going to do?" he complained. "You can't watch anything else, except maybe Angels games."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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