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Nielsen report finds that regional sports networks are popular among sport fans

Fox Sports camera crew is seen during an NFL football game in Detroit last year.
(Rick Osentoski / Associated Press)

Cable TV channels that televise games of local professional sports teams are highly popular among sports fans, a Nielsen report commissioned by Fox Sports has found.

The study, released Wednesday, revealed that in certain markets, including Detroit and St. Louis, fans ranked the local regional sports channel as more essential than ESPN, Discovery, History or HBO. The findings were derived from a survey of 1,500 pay-TV subscribers who identified themselves as sports fans, which means the study was not necessarily representative of the broader base of pay-TV subscribers.

The “passion index” study comes as Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and owners of other regional sports channels brace for pitched battles with pay-TV operators over the high cost of these channels.

“We think these channels are very valuable for what they deliver,” said Jeff Krolik, president of Fox Sports Regional Networks. “The message to us was that many viewers regard these regional sports networks as the ‘fifth network’” in terms of popularity.

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The issue is a sensitive one in the TV industry. Pay-TV operators have complained that the accelerating cost of sports channels is a prime contributor to higher bills for consumers, and network owners are worried about losing a public relations war.

Nielsen often finds that, in certain cities, a regional sports channel can draw larger audiences in prime time than traditional broadcast networks NBC, ABC, CBS and the national Fox network. During the most recent Major League Baseball season, for example, 23 of the 29 teams based in the U.S. ranked in the top five of all networks in their market when the teams played in prime time, according to the Nielsen findings.

Los Angeles ranked in the bottom quartile of cities with MLB teams, likely because of the ongoing distribution problems for the television channel owned by the Dodgers.

Fox Sports has a vested interest in the outcome of the study. The Fox business unit operates nearly two dozen regional sports channels across the country, including Prime Ticket and Fox Sports West in Los Angeles.

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In New York, Fox owns the majority stake in YES, the regional network that televises New York Yankees games. Last year, cable giant Comcast Corp. dumped YES from the lineup of its customers in northern New Jersey and Connecticut. Fox Sports is hoping to restore the channel to the Comcast homes.

“We are seeing all this evidence that these channels are incredibly popular, but we weren’t getting credit for it,” Krolik said.

Comcast declined to comment.

In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Dodgers have been thwarted in their attempts to get wide distribution for SportsNet LA. The channel is available only through Charter Communication’s Spectrum service. DirecTV, Dish Network, Cox Communications and Frontier Communications have declined to carry the channel, citing its price tag.

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According to consulting firm SNL Kagan, the most expensive regional sports networks are: YES, Madison Square Gardens Network, Fox Sports Arizona, Fox Sports Detroit, Comcast Sports Philadelphia and SportsNet LA.

meg.james@latimes.com

@MegJamesLAT


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