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.