Earlier this month officers of the Houston Astros baseball team, Houston Rockets basketball team, and cable TV network Comcast SportsNet (CSN) gathered for their third mediation session within several weeks. The mediator, US District Court Judge Lynn Hughes, is working with the parties to untangle financial and media rights disputes which were brought to a head when the local affiliate network, CSN Houston, was put into bankruptcy last year.
Texan network CSN Houston is majority owned by the Astros (46.384%) and Rockets (30.923%), and is operated through the NBC Sports Group unit of NBCUniversal, which owns the other 22.693%. In September 2013 NBCUniversal announced that affiliates of it and parent company Comcast had filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition for CSN Houston. The Astros objected to this move, accusing the broadcaster of filing the petition “improperly” to prevent the Astros from ending its agreement with the network. The Astros further claim the team has not been paid all monies owed to it for the 2013 season.
CSN Houston has also been dogged by “carriage controversies” with syndication negotiations with other major cable providers stalling. As a result, fans have limited options for viewing Astros and Rockets games, and ratings overall have suffered due to the lack of availability in the Houston market.
Houston Press blogger John Royal notes “there are lots of big and little items that need to be handled for this CSN Houston mess to possibly go away. There’s the whole thing about CSN Houston owing the Astros and Rockets money. There’s Comcast putting the network into bankruptcy. There’s Comcast trying to buy the Astros and Rockets out on the cheap, putting the network into bankruptcy so as to make a play to buy it, then pulling its offer. There’s the whole management issue behind the network and who is going to run the thing. The Astros want out. The Astros want money. What’s going to happen to the carriage.”
According to The Chron’s David Barron “The Rockets, for example, have said the only feasible future for CSN Houston is for Comcast to buy the network out of bankruptcy, and Comcast said a few weeks ago it would not do that.” Barron goes on to speculate that Comcast’s reluctance may be being fuelled by the pending Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger.
So, can mediation deliver results for the teams, their fans and the broadcasters? Royal seems to think so, but only if the parties are genuinely interested in resolving the matter – including Time Warner Cable if indeed the merger goes ahead before the dispute is settled. Each party must be willing to make compromises and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.