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The local cable giant is launching programs nationwide and may be starting a new network.
By Don Steinberg Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
First Philadelphia, then the nation? Comcast Corp. applied that manifest destiny in its spread across America to dominate the country's cable TV and Internet landscape. Now it appears to be unfurling the strategy to conquer the world of sports.

Since its failed attempt to buy ESPN and its parent company, the Walt Disney Co., last year, Comcast has been furiously launching its own TV sports programming around the country, leading to wide speculation that it may create a national sports network, one that would compete with ESPN, perhaps built around rights to telecast NFL games.

"[Comcast chief executive officer] Brian Roberts is the smartest guy in this whole industry, the way he has quietly put together a sports behemoth. The only question is, where does he want to take it?" said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a Chicago sports media consultancy. "He could start a new national sports channel and be in a quarter of the cable homes in the country right off the bat."

Launching a national channel would be huge, but Comcast has kept bigger bombshells secret, including its surprise hostile bids for Disney and AT&T Broadband before that. Comcast won't say a word about the sports-network speculation or whether it is in contention to get NFL games.

What began as Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia in 1997, then a Washington/Baltimore spin-off in 2001, has grown into sports channels in more than 20 million homes. In the second half of 2004, Comcast launched a sports-oriented channel in Detroit, a Cowboys channel in Dallas, and Comcast SportsNet West in Northern California. It became partner in the New York Mets Network that, beginning in 2006, will carry most Mets games to three million homes. Comcast SportsNet Chicago launched in October with rights to Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks games. Comcast took over sports TV in America's third-largest city by making the teams part-owners of the channel.

Comcast already owns specialized national sports channels: the Golf Channel and Outdoor Life Network. Outdoor Life has entered ESPN territory, notably by acquiring the Gravity Games, which mimic ESPN's X Games. This month, Comcast will use its clout as America's biggest cable provider to create its first homegrown national TV show: a sports-discussion program hosted by Lou Tilley. Out of Bounds will air weeknights at 11, opposing ESPN's SportsCenter. Comcast plans to find a local channel for the show in every major region it serves, even where it doesn't currently have sports channels.

Comcast also is one of the top owners of major-league teams, controlling the 76ers and Flyers and their arenas, even withholding team TV rights from satellite providers to keep customers on cable.

"Comcast's goal is to become one of the biggest names in sports in the country," said one cable executive, who asked not to be identified because he does business with Comcast.

With baseball's Washington Nationals soon to get an owner and strike a TV deal that might involve the Baltimore Orioles, Comcast is a player. It carries Orioles, Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games, and it owns three minor-league baseball teams nearby.

"Are we interested in buying the Washington baseball team? I think the answer is probably not," said Steve Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer. "But if the question is, are we interested in carrying the Washington baseball team on Comcast SportsNet in Baltimore and Washington, the answer is yes."

Speculation that Comcast might assemble its separate pieces into a sports network heightened last month after one personnel move and one comment by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. First, Comcast hired its first national president of programming. Jeff Shell, former head of Fox Cable Networks, oversaw Fox Sports Net. The next day, Tagliabue was asked about his league's negotiations over future rights to telecast NFL games. The NFL is talking with ABC and ESPN about renewing their rights to Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football. The league also may sell rights to games on Thursday and Saturday nights. Tagliabue said the talks were complicated because "we are giving very serious consideration to being part of the launch of another major sports network."

He may have been talking about working with Rupert Murdoch, who controls the Fox television network and the DirecTV satellite service. He may have been bluffing to scare Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN. He may have been talking about Comcast. "If Disney tries to push too hard against the NFL for the Monday night/Sunday night package, it would not surprise me if Comcast stepped in," Ganis said.

Comcast has been courting the NFL, America's premier sports property. Some remember that last March, at the NFL owners' meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., Roberts was seen talking to Dick Vermeil, the former Eagles coach who now leads the Kansas City Chiefs. Roberts said he was there for a family vacation, then joked: "We couldn't get Disney, so we're going after the NFL."

Last summer, Comcast became the largest distributor of the NFL Network, the league-owned football channel. The NFL Network, in 50 million homes, is among the channels that might get some NFL games as contracts are redone.

"You couldn't rule that out, but if we did, you want to do it with strong partners, and that would include Comcast," Tagliabue said in September. TV Week reported last week that Comcast is talking to the NFL about putting games on the Outdoor Life Network. There was no comment from Comcast or the league.

It surely is in Comcast's interest to become more self-sufficient in sports. Burke said sports programing is Comcast's largest cost and ESPN the most expensive channel it pays to distribute. In its deals with the NFL Network and NBA-owned NBA TV (which does carry games), Comcast gets sports without intermediaries such as ESPN.

"What Comcast is clearly doing is cutting out the middleman," said Dick Glover, vice president of broadcasting for NASCAR and former head of programming for ESPN.

There's no foreseeable day Comcast wouldn't need ESPN.

"ESPN has and probably will have for a long time the most compelling sports programming on television, and our number-one job is to get a reasonable carriage deal with ESPN," Burke said. But even Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president of programming, said: "What they're doing in Chicago is going to be a home run. And you know what? They're competition in that way, and we've got an eye on them."

Comcast uses sports to compete against satellite TV.

"What we're really trying to do is give people things with cable that they can't do with satellite," Burke said. Rival DirecTV recently paid $3.5 billion to extend its rights to show every NFL game. But it doesn't have an On Demand archive of game highlights. The NFL was happy to give that to Comcast for agreeing to carry the fledgling NFL Network.

"It's pretty obvious that Steve Burke and Brian Roberts understand that sports is a very significant entertainment vehicle in the home," said Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. "They've become a powerful force."

"They've certainly decided that sports is amongst the programming sources that are going to drive their cable profits, and that's good for them and good for us," NBA commissioner David Stern said. But he would say that. Like everyone in sports, Stern does business with Comcast.

Other Comcast Sports Holdings
Cable channels
Outdoor Life Network
Action sports, cycling
62 million subscribers

The Golf Channel
Golf tournaments
70 million subscribers

(Maine to Maryland)
Local sports coverage
6.4 million subscribers

Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Phantoms
Bowie Baysox
Frederick Keys
Delmarva Shorebirds

Wachovia Center
Wachovia Spectrum
Comcast Center at University of Maryland (naming rights only)
SOURCES: Comcast; Inquirer research
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