In UPN vs. Tigers – the Fans Lose

It was reported last week that UPN 50 and the Detroit Tigers have broken off negotiations to broadcast Tiger games. UPN 50 has been the Tigers over-the-air broadcast partner since 1995, and they have typically aired 25-40 games each of those years. Unless things change drastically over the next 3 weeks, non-cable subscribers will be left out. How can a 10 year relationsihp deteriorate and what does it mean for the fans?

First we’ll take a look at this from the Tigers’ perspective. Last year they had a significant bounce back in fan interest. Attendance jumped by over half a million, and television ratings rose appreciably. Mike Illitch committed $87 million to Troy Percival and Magglio Ordonez to fix some areas of need. Meanwhile, the Tigers didn’t lose any significant pieces over the offseason. They have a legitimate shot at finishing with a winning record and a realistic chance at competing for the division. The Tigers, needing to generate revenue to offset the increase in payroll and pay down building debt, figure they can push for an increase in their television contract.

On the other side of the table is UPN 50. Every year that Channel 50 has aired Tiger games the team has finished with a losing record. Many of those years the season was over for the Tigers by the time school let out in June. The result is a whole lot of low rating broadcasts. Channel 50 of course was more willing to take the hit on the Tigers because they also held the rights to Illitch’s other fanchise, the Red Wings. Now that they’ve lost the Red Wings, they are probably less likely to offer up a plum deal to the Illitch’s for the Tigers’ rights.

It is also easy to look at UPN’s lineup and think that the Tigers would be a better option than most of what they are showing. While this is undoubtedly true, think about where the break even point is for WKBD. To air a Tiger game and make a profit, they have to sell enough advertising to cover their production costs, as well as pay the Tigers’ for the rights to those games. If they are airing the network shows instead, they bear no production costs.

I’m only speculating as to each sides’ positions in the negotiations, as I have no inside information. However, my guess is that Illitch is demanding more, and UPN is having a hard time putting the numbers together to make it worthwhile. The fact of the matter is, the Tigers need UPN more than UPN needs the Tigers. The Tigers’ need an outlet for their games, while UPN seems content to give up all sports (they’ve already lost the Wings and the Pistons). However, I’m not sure the Tigers’ see it that way. This wouldn’t be the first time they eschewed fans in favor of a more profitable contract. Many are still stinging from the 2001 decision to air Wings’ and Tigers’ games on WXYT instead of the more powerful WJR. At the same time, it is difficult to say that Illitch doesn’t care about the fans given his recent spending on the team (and his track record with delivering championships with the Red Wings).

I don’t have information on how the Tigers’ local TV deals stack up with other comparable markets. It may be that the Tigers’ have been getting less than other MLB teams, in which case they may be right in their pursuit of a better contract. However, the fans are left hoping that another channel steps up to broadcast the games. The chances of this are pretty slim. Channels 2, 4, and 7 all have substantial network obligations that makes pre-empting for Tiger games a long shot. Big 62 isn’t an option, seeing as that they are owned by the same company as UPN 50. What we may see next year (2006) is the Tigers taking ont he cost of production of games, and then selling the rights to air those games.

While this is all sorted out, there are still 110 games on Fox Sports, and radio is still an option. It is just a shame that as fan interest in the Tigers’ increases, access to the team decreases.

11 Comments

  1. Joey

    March 7, 2005 at 8:44 am

    Our National Pastime–completely undemocratic. I’m a 30 year old professional and I still don’t feel I can afford cable–of course I live in New York and the rents a killer. Anyway, I don’t think the smart way to build a fan base is to exclude people of limited means…which make up quite a large percentage of people living in Detroit.

    The move from one of the most powerful radio stations in the nation to the 5-watt and a pair of rabbit ears operation that is WXYT is equally stupid.

    And while we’re on the subject of Tigers broadcasting…has anyone rolled the dice on MLBs online video package? I’m thinking this may be my best bet to watch the Tigers play this season. Do they televise a lot of Tigers games? How’s the video quality. I’d like to here some reviews before dropping 100 down on the package.

    Thanks.

    joey

  2. Boston Fan in Michigan

    March 7, 2005 at 11:57 am

    School gets out in June? Dude, I’m done in April. Right before a Tigers home series, actually, so I’ll get to go to a game before I head back east for the summer.

    I can’t believe UPN is doing this. I mean, surely they’d get better ratings for a Tigers game, even if the team sucks, than they would for the ‘programming’ (and I use the term loosely) they would put in its place?

  3. Joey

    March 7, 2005 at 2:51 pm

    Being a Tigers fan on Portland OR is tough, actually being a baseball fan here is tough! I buy the MLB Extra Innings package to catch the Tigs (and MANY other games) its great for out of market games but costs a few bucks. I would be upset if I lived there and couldn’t get the games for free! I’ll trade you my free Mariners games!

    As for the MLB.com games, I have tried free previews and if you have a cable connection that would be a good way to go. Anything slower and you’ll be very frustrated.

  4. Colt

    March 7, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    MLB.TV is a pretty good option, in my opinion. I’ve bought it every year it was available (I’m from California, so obviously Tigers games there are not regularly on TV or radio). I think if you get the season package soon then you get Gameday Audio free with it. It’s only 80 bucks for the whole season, and that’s everybody, not just the Tigers. So it’s a pretty good value if you’re going to use it a lot. Sometimes the image quality is not so great but it’s better than nothing. If you keep the window small it’s pretty good. And the Tigers game is almost always carried, although you might have to watch the enemy team’s broadcast sometimes. Good luck!

  5. Jason R

    March 7, 2005 at 9:40 pm

    I have enjoyed MLB.com for a few years now. Dont bother if you dont have a high-speed internet connection, and it helps to have a PC instead of a Mac. There are improvements to be made, but you’re paying peanuts compared to cable TV + MLB Extra Innings, so its worth it if you use it.

  6. Joey

    March 7, 2005 at 9:51 pm

    I love this blog! Thanks guys!

  7. Joe

    March 8, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    I know I might be sounding like a broken record, but I really feel that the tigers are going to make a trade. Either a third baseman, moving Inge to Center or a Center Fielder, and possibly a Starter. The Tigers have valuble trade bait right now and are desparate to fill three key voids.

    Another reason i think the Tigers are about to make a big trade is how they are actively promoting through their beet reporters; Rodney, and German, and White.

    Not to mention Mike Illitch stating he will keep on spending, which leads me to believe they are willing to take on another big salary.

    ESPN.com Rumor Mill

    Interested

    Mets

    Indians

    Cubs

    Marlins

    Giants

    White Sox

    Feb. 24 – With Troy Percival now in the Tigers’ bullpen, will having “multiple closers” work for Ugueth Urbina? Manager Alan Trammell and GM Dave Dombrowski plan to get an answer soon.

    According to ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark, two potential bidders

  8. Joe

    March 8, 2005 at 10:31 pm

    i know hes always injured but how about ken griffey jr?

  9. Boston Fan in Michigan

    March 8, 2005 at 11:48 pm

    //i know hes always injured but how about ken griffey jr?//

    Dude.

    Dude.

    Tell me you’re kidding.

  10. Joe

    March 9, 2005 at 2:05 am

    Sanchez or Jr?

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