By: Travis Duke
Finally there is a light at the end of the tunnel for fans of the Astros, Rockets and Dynamo in and around the city of Houston and a huge chunk of a 5 state region that includes parts of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico that have been unable to watch their teams except for when they were televised nationally for the last 2 years.
The Comcast Corporation, recently named worst cable company in America, mainly due to their well documented poor customer service, purchased the Houston Regional Sports Network(formed by the Astros and Rockets in 2003) in 2010 with a plan to nix the current broadcasting deal with Fox Sports that showed every Astros and Rockets game throughout the season. After dropping Fox Sports in 2012, Comcast moved to set up their own RSN(regional sports network) and make a deal with all of the major satellite & cable providers they could to get their channel on the air as soon as possible. Comcast Sportsnet is a staple for teams in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Oakland, just to name a few. The network showed great promise. Production values overall are very good. They kept most of the same commentators and reporters from the previous network, which might not sound like much to most people, but there are plenty of die-hard, loyal sports fans who like hearing and seeing the same people bringing them the call for their favorite team.
I personally was very excited for the new network. I felt like all 3 of the teams included in the deal were making big transitions themselves. The Astros moved from being in the National League for 50 some-odd years to the American League, with exciting new front office personnel ready to turn around the team that has been terrible for the last 7 or 8 years. Then the Rockets go out and grab big time free agents and hire a hot shot head coach and become actually very exciting to watch. As for the Dynamo, I watch some soccer, mostly European leagues and not so much MLS, but I was excited to watch the games I could catch and who knows, maybe develop more of a love for the team. When it came to transitions for them, they just finished building one of the best stadiums in MLS at the moment a couple of years back. What better way to show it off than with a shiny new network?
However, no deal has been reached, as there have been numerous snags and a lot of money bickering going on in negotiations with all of the major satellite and cable providers in the 5 state area I mentioned earlier, along with the fact that Comcast and two or three other very small cable companies are the only providers to carry the network. See, only roughly 40% of Houstonians have Comcast cable. Obviously Comcast's cable service there is ONLY available in the greater Houston metroplex. This leaves anybody out of that area with NO chance at watching their sports teams and people inside the area that do not already have Comcast with a choice of if they care enough to switch to the voted worst cable company in America just to see said sports teams.
There in lies another problem altogether. The Astros have been historically bad the last 3 years, losing 100+ games in each of those years. There is only one other team to do that in history. The Rockets have the potential to be a championship contender, but most people aren't going to go through the hassle of switching their television provider just to watch them. Therefor, you don't have the best product in terms of their competitiveness, which is what brings in the most viewers. This not really being the first thing on most fan's minds, the inevitable question for them became, why aren't the satellite and other cable providers picking up the channel for their company?
Comcast is a big, big time cable company. They have bought smaller cable companies and they are on their way to a pretty big merger with Time Warner Cable. In doing this, they have become accustomed to throwing a lot of weight around in negotiations, and it has pretty much always panned out. In the words of college football analyst Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend! Comcast wanted to charge companies upwards of $4.00 per subscriber. To put that number into perspective for you, ESPN's going rate is around $2.50 per subscriber. The big local networks such as CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC don't even charge as much as ESPN. Now, the companies paying Comcast this ridiculous monthly fee would just be passed down to the subscribers, so no loss for them. However, those companies know when an increase of $4.00 on subscribers monthly bills show up with the explanation of getting a channel that, lets face it, a good amount of people will rarely, if ever, watch, they will either threaten to cancel or have to reduce their bill in some other way. So, the companies purchasing the channel respond with a plan to offer the channel a la carte, which is a fancy way of saying the people who want the channel, have to order the channel to actually get it. Comcast's response was an overwhelming NO. They wouldn't feel like they made enough money in the beginning, because they know the product, especially in the Astros case, is not worth that steep of a price per subscriber. They just hoped they could get enough people to yell at their current providers(see the video below) and the providers would cave in and provide people with a low quality product for a very high premium. Does Comcast really think that we, and the providers, are that stupid?
This has been the case for the last 2 years as both sides have struggled to reach any agreement. However, on a great day for Houston sports fans back in September of 2013, Comcast Sportsnet Houston went into default due to a gross lack of viewership and funds and was forced into filing bankruptcy and is now operating under Chapter 11. This has pushed the issue into the courtroom, not only for the bankruptcy case, but the new Astros owner, Jim Crane, is suing ex-owner McLane and CSN Houston for breach of contract, negligence and fraud. CSN Houston still owe both the Astros and Rockets approximately $100 million in rights fees that were unable to be paid over the last 2 years because of a complete lack of funds from viewership. Yet, you can still find garbage like this video floating around online:
The sad thing is these are honest, loyal Houston sports fans, they just didn't understand the details of the situation and thought they were saying the right thing. CSN Houston has also actually duped 1000's of people into signing an online petition to get the channel on air, to no avail.
Now about that light at the end of the tunnel. After several legal proceedings, a judge is in the process of ruling for another company to buy CSN Houston and take over the network outright. Speculation is it will be a combination of DirecTV and AT&T doing the purchasing, with DirecTV's own subsidized RSN called Root Sports Network the network that will take over for CSN Houston. The word on the street on a tentative date to a return to a much bigger audience for Houston's beloved sports teams is in the middle of the Rocket's season, hopefully right before Christmas. There is still a long way to go, with an October 5th court date, which will be a sort of progress report that informs the judge thats has been over-seeing the case from the start of what CSN Houston is doing to get the network sold. I will be watching that very closely and reporting any new information I have in this case. For now, all I can do as a fan of the Astros, Rockets & even Dynamo(who has been sadly left out of the conversation in all of this mess, as apparently nobody cares about soccer in this part of the world) is wait and see what happens.