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CSN, Astros Trading Barbs in Bankruptcy Case

You would think by now Jim Crane would have made his point. But, then again, the government is shut down due to a small group of hardline Republicans, so I guess keeping the Astros and Rockets off TV due to one hardline MLB owner seems reasonable these days.

As CSN hurtles toward a bankruptcy hearing on October 28 to determine if a trustee will be appointed to take over management of the struggling network, new documents have emerged showing a growing dissent between Crane and the CSN leadership, according to the Chron, with Comcast attorneys going so far as to say the network would not survive were the bid for bankruptcy to fail.

For their part, the Astros call the whole thing a "smoke screen" and an effort to squeeze them out of the process of negotiating carriage agreements with U-verse, DirecTV and Dish Network, the heart of the entire disagreement since Crane and the Astros have blocked the network's attempts at finalizing deals that would put them and the Rockets on the air.

"Comcast's allegations ... are a smoke screen, designed to hide what is really going on here," the Astros said. "Comcast orchestrated a collusive involuntary bankruptcy filing and is attempting ... to facilitate its plan to acquire the network's assets and the Astros' media rights without the Astros' consent."

The Comcast filing warned of the network's possible demise.

If the Astros are allowed to shop their games to another carrier, as team owner Jim Crane has said he wants to do, Comcast said, "At best, the network's remaining assets would be sold in a fire sale. All of its 130 employees will lose their jobs."

The Comcast affiliates -- National Digital Television Center, CSN California, Comcast Sports Management Services and Houston SportsNet Finance -- also claim that if the case is dismissed, the result will be "the collapse of the network and hence the destruction of millions of dollars in value."

Another passage refers to the "Astros' apparent strategy of sabotaging the network" by blocking carriage deals and said bankruptcy is "the natural and obvious result of the Astros' refusal to permit the network to enter into carriage agreements. ... The Astros apparently now feel (the agreement with CSN Houston) is not rich enough to suit them."

Pretty gloomy stuff overall. Crane has said they already have a plan to put the team on the air next season regardless of the Comcast situation.

Let me just break down a few of my thoughts on this whole ridiculous debacle.   1. Is Crane up to something?

For some time I've thought Crane was kind of like Michael Keaton's character at the end of the movie Night Shift. He and partner Henry Winkler were caught running a prostitution ring out of the city morgue in New York, but because it was an election year, the city was going to let them off. Winkler's character, the more conservative of the two, was thrilled. Keaton's character decided that they had the city over a barrel and they should try to get something from them. It was stupid and deluded and hilarious.

That's how I've imagined Crane's discussions with the other CSN/Rockets contingent. "We're the ONLY game in town, you idiots! They HAVE to pay us what we want. Don't you GET IT!?"

But lately I've started to wonder if maybe Crane's methods were more crafty. Perhaps this is his way of exiting the deal with CSN and taking some cash on the way out. He didn't make this arrangement in the first place. It was Uncle Drayton who put this together -- a friend of Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, I might add. If Crane is trying to get out of the deal, he would most certainly want the network to fail and for carriage agreements not to be arranged. I certainly hope that is not his aim, but it feels like it is.

2. The Rockets should have never agreed to the structure of this deal.

I'm sure that when they were putting this network deal together, they assumed it would be smooth sailing. Then someone threw a Crane into the works and all hell broke loose. The Rockets, wisely, have been extremely quiet regarding CSN's bankruptcy filings. But no doubt they are hoping a trustee is assigned and they can get their games to a wider swath of the general public.

But from the get-go, this was a bad deal for them. Given the Astros' fortunes -- they weren't good even at that time -- and the fact that McLane had been hinting he was going to sell the team, it makes little sense to hitch your wagon to a volatile asset like the Astros. It also makes no sense to require that all four parties be in 100 percent agreement on any deals. Give the fourth party an out clause if you must, but don't create a lone-juror-can-deadlock-the-verdict situation that hamstrings you for years and costs you millions.

3. Losing CSN would be a shame on multiple fronts.

Nothing against Fox Sports Southwest, but CSN Houston clearly outclasses them in virtually every way. There is more local coverage. The quality of the feed is light-years better. And the on-air talent is superior. Not only would it suck to see a bunch of people lose their jobs, it would be bad if the Rockets were relegated to a second-tier network.

For those who don't have Comcast, this is a GOOD sports channel that covers a TON of local sports from high school right up to the pros. It's in-depth and comprehensive. Losing it would be more than just having to switch to another channel to see the Rockets, it would mean losing a valuable asset in sports reporting in Houston, something every other major city in America has already.


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