MLB, ESPN extend TV contract through 2021

NEW YORK — Major League Baseball and ESPN extended their television contract through 2021 on Tuesday, a deal that almost doubles the amount of money the network will pay annually for baseball content while also all but eliminating blackouts of local broadcasts of ESPN games on Monday and Wednesday nights.

The deal was announced on Tuesday. It combines rights for TV, radio, digital and international that had been separate. The new single contract adds new rights to air a wild-card game, along with additional rights to highlights and digital content. It also gives the network more flexibility to show games involving popular teams.

The previous contracts were worth close to $360 million a year combined. A person with knowledge of the new combined deal says it will be worth about $700 million a year over eight years. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the financial figures were not released.

“ESPN’s financial commitment to baseball is extraordinary. … It’s a testament to not only the strength of our game, but the unprecedented popularity with our fans,” Commissioner Bud Selig said.

The deal also addresses a long-running complaint from local television markets that were prevented from carrying games that were broadcast on ESPN. For instance, if ESPN was carrying a Wednesday night game between the Dodgers and Giants, anyone in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas who did not have the network could not see the game on television.

The new agreement, which begins in 2014, allows ESPN to increase the number of “coexists,” meaning that a game between the Dodgers and Giants not only will be broadcast on ESPN, but also the local television stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We’re ESPN. We promote the game all day, we take ‘Baseball Tonight’ to the area and then when the game starts, there’s a message that says ‘Not carried in your area,’” ESPN President John Skipper said. “We are now out of that business. The coexist is very important to us.”

ESPN still carries exclusive rights for Sunday night games, but Selig said he was pleased with the increased availability of all the games both locally and nationally during the work week.

“I think this deal is very fair,” Selig said. “Given the number of games that we have, we certainly don’t want to hurt any local rights holders. I don’t think we have here at all. The clubs, on balance, are all going to be remarkably better off.”

The deal also gives ESPN the rights to a wild card game, which will rotate between the AL and NL every other year, the ability to air live look-ins on “SportsCenter” and increased the number of times it can schedule a team on Sunday night baseball from five to six.

So does that mean yet another installment of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry on ESPN? Not necessarily, Skipper said. He said he knows the network is criticized for the perception that it schedules too many games from that series and said ESPN has committed to put every team in the league in that slot at least once per season.

“We want to have a balance to maximize the teams that are most popular and drive the most ratings, but we also want to work with baseball to feature every team and help grow the game,” Skipper said.

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