Mariners, DirecTV Sports form regional sports network

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comApril 17, 2013 

SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners are now in the television business.

The team announced Tuesday it reached a deal with DirecTV Sports Network – its longtime television-rights holder – on a new regional sports network partnership.

The deal gives the Mariners controlling interest in Root Sports Northwest with DirecTV Sports Networks assuming a minority position. The agreement lasts through the 2030 season.

This move changes the landscape of the local television market as well as the Mariners’ financial future. Team executive vice president of operations Bob Aylward wouldn’t go into details but said the team is making a “substantial investment.”

“Today’s the culmination of two years of negotiations to achieve this long-term agreement,” Aylward said.

On the surface, nothing will change from Root Sports’ programming. The Bellevue-based company will continue to run day-to-day operations of the network with the assistance of DirecTV Sports Networks. People who have Root Sports on their local cable systems in the Northwest will continue to receive it.

“From a viewer’s aspect, there will be no visible change,” said DirecTV Sports Networks president Patrick Crumb.

Beyond the day-to-day programming, the revenue generated should allow the Mariners to increase player payroll significantly. Every team in the American League West has recently tapped into the lucrative television market. The Los Angeles Angels (17 years/$2.5 billion) and Texas Rangers (20 years/ $1.7 billion) signed massive television deals that have allowed them to push their payrolls well past Seattle’s.

This deal will allow the Mariners to control all of the revenues generated from Root Sports Northwest, including any non-baseball programming.

Much of that money won’t have to be subjected to the mandatory revenue sharing required by Major League Baseball because it’s generated by the network and not the team. It’s a loophole that has proven beneficial for teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox, who own their own regional sports networks.

The Mariners decided partner with DirecTV Sports Networks instead of going it alone for several reasons. Starting an regional sports network from scratch can be risky. By partnering with DirecTV Sports Networks, the distribution rights and agreements are already in place. There would be no distribution disputes that are plaguing some regional sports networks and the Pac-12 Network.

Aylward said that for the Mariners to remain competitive – and become more competitive – they needed to take this step.

“What drove the timing is what’s going on in the marketplace,” he said.

The Mariners’ previous television deal had an opt-out clause after the 2015 season. By then, the bubble could have burst on the sizable chunks of money being thrown around.

“This was essential,” Aylward said. “It gives us the ability to make the long-range planning that our competitors have been able to enjoy.”

The financial freedom is not only for signing potential high-priced free agents, but also for being able to lock up young players to lucrative but financially smart contract extensions.

“The intention of this ownership is to compete for championship,” Aylward said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle. And it’s an important piece.”

DirecTV’s Crumb said the network still plans to continue its programming of Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, Gonzaga basketball, West Coast Conference basketball and Big Sky Conference football.

“We want to constantly expand our year round coverage,” Crumb said.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 @RyanDivish

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