It's a little more than a week until the CSN Houston parties return to the courtroom of judge Marvin Isgur. Things have been relatively quiet since the last hearing, and it can only be hoped by all involved that the Rockets are close to working out carriage deals that will get the network on air throughout the Houston area.
But earlier this week the Astros announced that they are working on a back-up plan that will allow the games to be aired in the Houston area this season. Owner Jim Crane told members of the press on Tuesday that the team is working with Major League Baseball to make the games available this season, with MLB Network producing the games and showing them online and on television.
While the Astros are unable to provide more details, an educated guess would be that MLB would probably make available its MLB.TV Internet platform and its Extra Innings cable package. These packages are available to all baseball fans, at a reasonable price, but due to league rules, Astros games are blacked out in the area that MLB has deemed to be Astros viewing territory (all of Texas and parts of Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas). Thus MLB would probably waive these blackout rules so that subscribers could watch the Astros games on their computers through MLB.TV or on TV with Extra Innings.
There is of course the slight issue of having to pay for MLB.TV or Extra Innings (there'll surely be some objections raised by people already paying for cable or satellite services who don't want to pay extra because of something that's not their fault. But as a baseball fan, I'm a longtime subscriber to MLB.TV who watches tons of out-of-market games each week of the season). There's also the question of whether fans could get a discount price that just allows access to Astros games. It's also entirely possible that MLB would produce the games and find an over-the-air partner for the games.
This is potentially good news for Astros fans -- yes, they do still exist -- who are undoubtedly dreading another year of not being able to view the games. And the move is not without precedent as the NBA has waived its blackout rules in past years to allow Portland Trail Blazers games to be streamed in Portland because of the inability of CSN Northwest to get carriage deals in place for most of Oregon. But while it would be good news for Astros fans, it would probably be the final nail in the coffin for CSN Houston.
This plan is, however, probably contingent on what happens with the bankruptcy case. The Astros broadcast rights are one of CSN Houston's most valuable assets, and by broadcasting the games on other outlets, the value of the asset would be harmed. If a trustee is named at some point, it's possible the trustee would object and not allow the games to be made available to anyone who cannot get CSN Houston. And even if the trustee doesn't object, it's likely that Comcast and the Rockets would storm into the bankruptcy court and ask the judge to deny the Astros the option. But here's my major caveat: I'm not a bankruptcy attorney. It's entirely possible that the trustee and judge would sign off on this plan, in which case fans would then be left to wonder why the Rockets haven't tried it.
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And the thinking has to be that this MLB plan is the absolutely last option. The Astros have argued that the bankruptcy was filed so as only to keep them from getting out of the contract with CSN Houston. So if the bankruptcy case is dismissed by the judge, one would think the Astros would opt out of the contract as originally planned and attempt to get a new deal with Fox Sports Southwest. But it's also likely that should the bankruptcy case be dismissed and the Astros try to sign a deal with another provider or go the MLB.TV route, Comcast would file a suit of some type attempting to block the move.
It's good to see that the Astros are looking at other avenues for making their games available in Houston. But it seems that it's just not going to be that easy. There's the whole bankruptcy matter to deal with. There's the contract with Comcast. There's the fact that the Astros are partial owners of the network and that these moves could harm the network. But maybe the MLB involvement will make everything better -- its online platform is the best in sports, however, and MLB Network has the most complete carriage of any of the sports-owned networks.
Frankly, I still think the best, most realistic path to getting Astros games on TV for all (and the Rockets) will come about because of actions of the Rockets. It could be the Rockets buying out the Astros, guaranteeing the Astros that they'll be paid no matter what, then working out carriage agreements with the rest of the region's cable and satellite providers. It could be the Rockets working out a merger with Fox Sports or DirecTV or AT&T.
We'll know more on February 4 when all the parties report back to Judge Marvin Isgur. Maybe the Rockets will spring a deal on everybody. Maybe the judge will say enough and appoint a trustee to run things. Or maybe he'll just dismiss the bankruptcy and kick everybody out of his courtroom. But as much as I want to be optimistic, and I was really optimistic a couple of weeks ago when the Rockets talked of a possible AEG involvement, I'm just finding it hard to keep thinking positive thoughts.