NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball's owners unanimously approved on Thursday the launch of MLB Network, which will broadcast baseball programming 24 hours a day, including 26 live Saturday night games during the regular season. The new unit is projected to launch the MLB Network into 47 million cable and satellite homes on Jan. 1, 2009. It will be 66.6-percent owned by MLB with the remaining shares to be held in partnership with Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Cox and Comcast. Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president, business, said at the conclusion of the two-day quarterly ownership meetings Thursday that the network's rollout will be the largest in history for any cable network.
"This is not hyperbole, this is fact," Brosnan said during a press conference about a project that was originally approved in concept by the owners in 2004. "In 2009, when this network launches into 47 million homes, that will exceed any other cable television launch in history by 20 million homes. So this isn't a tiny little niche network. This is a fully, broadly distributed television service." The previous most widespread launch was the combined effort of Microsoft and NBC when MSNBC was re-launched on cable to 28 million homes in July 1996, MLB said in a document provided to the media. The new MLB Network will also be made available on the basic or digital tier of all of MLB's partner services, rather than the sports tiers, which usually cost extra. "We wound up with a channel that will start up like no other that has ever started in the cable business," said Commissioner Bud Selig. The placement of the MLB Network was one of the main negotiating points last winter in talks that seemed to end when MLB announced a deal to sell its Extra Innings out-of-market game package to DirecTV. That exclusive deal with the satellite carrier was for four years guaranteed with a three-year option that, if exercised, would have brought the total value to $700 million. At the time, DirecTV agreed to offer the channel on its basic tier and partner with MLB on the project, an obligation other cable networks didn't want to match. But under pressure from fans and the U.S. Congress, the three cable services took the Extra Innings package and offered to also carry the MLB Network on their basic tier in exchange for a piece of the action. The entirety of the seven-year deal with all the entities is now guaranteed at $80 million a year, Brosnan said, with an upside potential of MLB earning more each season based on additional sales of the Extra Innings package. Asked why MLB was able to attain basic-tier status when the National Football League and National Basketball Association haven't with their networks, Brosnan said: "We pursued a strategy for five years. We had a board, we had a president and we had a Commissioner, that supported our strategy. We took a lot of risk. We took a lot heat, particularly in the last 3 1/2 months. But we had conviction in our strategy. We got a little bit lucky. We stuck to our guns. And we used the out-of-market package to leverage [the MLB Network's] distribution." To be determined is who will run the new unit and the content of non-baseball game programming. Brosnan said that programming already aired on the Internet by MLB.com will be closely examined for its viability of use on the new network. Brosnan also said that the 26-week game package will be non-exclusive and utilized in combination with what is being aired in local markets on those Saturday nights by the individual teams. "This network will not rise and fall on the number of games we put on it," Brosnan said. "Rather, [it will rise and fall] on the creativity of the non-game programming that we present."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.