Houston's Not the Only City Having Problems with Comcast SportsNet

The Portland Trail Blazers are in the middle of a ten-year contract with Comcast SportsNet Northwest. And so far, the only people in the CSN Northwest viewing area who can see the Trail Blazers are those people who have Comcast. Not people with Direct TV. Not people with Dish Network. Not those who might happen to be on another cable system.

Just Comcast.

The Trail Blazers have sought help from the FCC. They decided to put some games on an over-the-air Portland station. And they've even streamed games over the Internet so that the fans could watch games. But despite everything tried, the games still aren't available to most of the fans of the Portland Trail Blazers, and there appears to be no end in sight.

There are some constructive lessons in all of this for fans of the Houston Rockets and the Houston Astros. The first lesson being that the fans are screwed because the reason the Rockets and Astros aren't available to a majority of the sports fans in Houston has nothing to do with the fans and everything to do with money.

CSN Houston wants to be part of every subscriber's basic cable package. But it is an expensive network for a cable/satellite provider to acquire the carriage rights to, which results in all cable/satellite viewers having to pay a higher bill for a channel on the basic cable tier that a large majority of viewers don't want and will never watch. The other cable/satellite providers would prefer to pay a lesser price for the network and thus supposedly not mean higher bills for subscribers, or would prefer to put the network on a sports tier, accessible only to viewers who elect to pay a higher bill for the right to various sports networks that aren't on the basic tier. This means that CSN Houston would get less money, have access to fewer viewers and would have less leverage over advertisers.

Despite a New York Times story from Saturday, this is a not a new situation. It's been an issue with sports since forever, and each time a network signs a new contract with a league or a team, the voices of doom come out and tell everybody that the whole construct is about to collapse.

But it's currently the battle being fought in Houston and in Portland. And if the parties have been unable to work out a deal in Portland after five years, what hope is there for Houston?

CSN Houston will have you believe that the Houston situation is different. The Trail Blazers are the only professional sports franchise that the CSN Northwest holds the rights to, so that makes it more difficult to hold out leverage. CSN Houston, on the other hand, holds the rights to three of Houston's professional teams, the Astros, Rockets and Dynamo. Thus, the argument goes, the other cable/satellite providers in the Houston area will have no choice but to give in to the demands of CSN Houston.

But that argument doesn't hold up. The Trail Blazers are it for Portland. There is no major league baseball team. There is no NHL team. There is only the Blazers. CSN Northwest holds the rights to the only major professional sports franchise in the state of Oregon. And yet six years into a deal with the Blazers, CSN Northwest still can't reach an agreement that will make the team's games accessible to most of Portland or Oregon.

CSN Houston holds the television rights to the Rockets, Astros and Dynamo. The only reason they don't hold the rights to the Texans is because the NFL controls the regular season and postseason rights to NFL teams. It's just like the situation in Portland. There is no difference.

Maybe the CSN Houston will work itself out before the Astros season begins. Maybe the Rockets will pop up on Direct TV or Dish or U-verse at some point before the season ends. Maybe CSN Houston's "I Want CSN Houston" ad campaign will work and it will get all of the money that the network is demanding as well as having CSN Houston placed on the basic cable tier, which means that people who couldn't care less about the Astros will have to pay higher cable bills so that the ever decreasing number of fans for the teams will be able to watch the games on TV.

Or maybe the sports rights pricing bubble will finally burst and the other satellite/cable providers won't give in to the blackmail. And maybe the fans of Houston sports teams will find themselves still unable to watch games on TV in five years.

There is one major difference between the situations in Portland and Houston, however. The Trail Blazers aren't part owners of CSN Northwest, and they actually seem to want the games on air. The Rockets and Astros are owners of CSN Houston, and if they really wanted the games on TV, then they could make that happen.

Then again, maybe the Astros really don't want their games on television. And seeing how bad the team is, is there really anybody out there who actually wants to watch the Astros play on TV?

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal