Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Upcoming Media War in the Rose City

Ok, I'm not trying to scare you with the title, especially with the Trail Blazers being one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now on an eight-game winning streak. Optimism is really high about the team, and it's translating into increased TV ratings, increased attention in the media, higher demand for tickets, and overall a better feeling about this team. But a recent media move has me a bit concerned, and it might affect the future of sports coverage in our fair city.

Flash back to the early 1990's in Trail Blazer land, and TV coverage of the team was basically handled by KOIN (CBS affiliate) and BlazerVision, a pay per view deal with Comcast where their cable customers could buy access to home games. BlazerVision had a few outlets that non cable folks could pay to watch games, but it paid during those days to know somebody who purchased the package. At the time, the Trail Blazers played in the Memorial Coliseum which seated about 12,700 folks, one of the smaller arenas in the NBA. When the team announced they were building a new arena, it led to optimism about getting tickets and perhaps opening up the TV coverage a bit.

The Rose Garden opened in 1995, and while it became a bit easier to get game day tickets, BlazerVision remained on the scene because of demand for the games. It was around this time that the team and Paul Allen made a decision to try and create an all sports cable channel in Portland called Action Sports Cable Network (ASCN). The Trail Blazers would be the main draw, but the channel would showcase lots of local sports, including colleges and other pro teams. The major competition for this endeavor was Fox Sports Northwest, originally called Prime Sports Northwest, who had the Pac-10 coverage and some other sports packages that they showed on their channel. Prime was based out of Seattle, and while they called themselves Northwest, the coverage was a bit biased towards Seattle based teams.

ASCN finally was born and did a good job of showing games. The problem was that nobody in Portland could see the games due to a conflict with the team, ASCN and AT&T Cable which was being acquired by Comcast. The sides kept trying to figure out a deal to get the channel on cable, but each side wouldn't budge on price, channel location, and other ammenities. Other cable companies did sign up and get ASCN, so basically if you lived outside of Portland, you could see games on TV but not within the city limits. The bars and restaurants that originally had BlazerVision were able to hook up with ASCN so there were Blazer Spots to watch games, but not in your own home. All sides blamed each other for the issues, saying they were doing everything they could to get the games available for fans.

Then, the free spending days of the team started to affect the team's bottom line, with ASCN being part of the issue. Owning a channel that few people in your own town could see was draining the team's bottom line. It didn't help that this coincided with the period of the Jail Blazers, where the team's attitude was very jaded and antics both on and off the court stained the once proud franchise. The solid hard working team of the 1990's had been replaced with a selfish, angry, combative team that effectively imploded before our eyes. ASCN finally went out of business during one of the team's off season, and the team began looking for a new home for games.

Up stepped Fox Sports Northwest, who had added the Mariners to their stable of teams. The Oregon Ducks had begun transitioning away from FSN to their own telecasts as the new Mariner heavy programming made the station more Seattle biased. But the Trail Blazers had a home, and you could finally see home games on cable. All was well until the following year the Supersonics moved their games to FSN, which was good for them but bad for the viewers. As the Sonics continued to get better and the Trail Blazers struggled with finding an identity, the coverage became more and more slanted towards up north.

The Trail Blazers began a renaissance a few years ago to reconnect with the fans, and build a team that everyone could be proud of. The pieces have been coming together, with Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake, Martell Webster, Jarrett Jack and Travis Outlaw forming a solid nucleus of players. However, the process wasn't without bumps in the road, and the team got very aggressive in marketing the team as different and thing would improve.

During the most recent off season, the TrailBlazers TV deal was up, and while there were cursory discussions with FSN, both sides went their own way because of terms. Within a few weeks, the team announced a 10 year deal with Comcast to set up a Oregon based sports channel in time for the 2007 season. While the Trail Blazers would be the programming hub, other local teams would get coverage as well. Comcast Sports Northwest went on the air in October 2007, and so far, it's not a bad place to watch games. But there are still ongoing issues.

So far, only Verizon Cable in Hillsboro was able to add CSNW to their channel lineup. Fans who have other cable systems or satellite TV have been shut out of Trail Blazer games this year, mostly because all of the sides can't come to an agreement. With the season now 25 games in, there's hope that terms can be reached, but essentially each side is blaming each other for the issue. But the interesting development that happened a few days ago was that FSN agreed to broadcast 20 Portland Beavers games and 5 Portland Timbers games each season for the next few years. It's great for the teams to get the coverage, and should help with the gate and interest in the teams, but I believe this is probably the start of competition between FSN and CSNW.

The future of FSN's programming is up in the air with the status of the SuperSonics, now rumored to be moving to Oklahoma next season. The University of Oregon joined CSNW, and now you can see most Duck broadcasts locally. There's been talk that the Beavers might be looking to move their broadcasts as well, if the terms are right. And Seattle now has MLS coming to town in 2009, and would be looking for broadcast partners.

I'm not against competition at all if it benefits the customers and fans that want to see the games. But in the all mighty pursuit of dollars and exposure, my hope is that the teams and channels involved will not only think of the bottom line but think of the fans as well. Nobody wins when games are hard to find, especially if your cable system or satellite provider doesn't even have access to carry the games. I'm hoping history doesn't repeat itself here, but at this point, all I can do is find my remote and take my chances..

No comments: