There's been much written about the CSN Houston debacle. Some straight and sober articles. Some opinionated pieces. But truthfully, except for the parties involved, nobody really knows why CSN Houston has yet to achieve carriage on Direct TV, Dish Network, U-verse, TimeWarner Cable or most other cable systems.
Jim Crane would like to set the record straight as to what's going on with the deal. He wants to correct some things, clarify the record and give some explanations. So we met at his office at Union Station, next to Minute Maid Park, earlier this week, and he provided the Astros' take on the CSN Houston situation.
"We weren't in charge of distribution," he says. They [Comcast] have a full-fledged team that was supposed to execute these deals and bring it to us for approval. Well, I even offered to fly around with their people and help sell the Astros and just talk about the Astros because that's what I run. Talk about how we're fixing them and how the product will be good once we get good."
But the bankruptcy court has now put the Astros in charge of distribution, of making sure that either CSN Houston gets carriage deals worked out or that the Astros and Rockets get on the air in some other matter. The court order was rather unexpected, but the Astros are putting together an approach to make all the parties happy.
Crane noted there are only a few options available, only a limited number of companies -- Direct TV, U-Verse, TimeWarner, Fox Sports -- with which a deal can be done. And even then, there's only a limited combination of deals that can happen. The Astros could take control of the network; Comcast could retain control. And a few possible others.
"We're exploring every single option we can to make this viable and get it on TV," he says. "That's our goal. And make a financial deal that we can live with long-term."
A financial deal the Astros can deal with has been the primary holdup. Comcast has only presented two potential deals, and neither was financially viable for the Astros, though, Crane noted, the Astros have been willing to both take a short-term financial hit on money from deals and to do a short-term distribution/carriage deal with the other companies to show that the Astros and CSN Houston are viable. And Comcast was unable to deliver a deal.
"We even recommended that to Comcast, said hey, we'd take a short-term deal but we can't take a long-term bad 20-year deal where everyone takes a haircut. There's three avenues where the money's going: Us, the Rockets, and to run the trucks out and pay the announcers and do all of that."
But none of the proposals from Comcast would allow that to happen.
He's aware that people think he's asking too much for the rights. And he's aware of the statements that have come from Direct TV and U-verse officials about the regional sports networks' bubble bursting. But he's quick to note that despite their objections, the satellite and cable networks are still rapidly adding sports networks and passing those costs on to subscribers.
"We do think the value's going up," he says. "If you look at what just came out on the Phillies [who are negotiating a new TV deal] and the numbers that they're talking about, you go to yourself, then how come this is not worth as much? This is a big city, this is a sophisticated city with high-paid people and a good employment rate. Everything's clicking here. It's a great town. Why is ours worth so much less than theirs? When you do the math, even though they may have more subscribers in a tighter area, the math doesn't work."
Crane realizes he's been put in charge of an important deal that involves not just the Astros but the Rockets, Comcast and the fans.
"I'm working on behalf, not just for the Astros, but on behalf of the network to try to get a deal," he says. "So I'm for the Astros and Comcast at this point, which I take very seriously, to get the best deal that I can."
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But, he reiterates, he's not going to take just any deal. He'll take a short-term deal. He'll take lesser money over a short-term. But he won't just take a hit for the sake of taking a financial hit.
"We're going to see what happens, but it just doesn't make a lot of sense to us," he says. "So in a way, we're not fighting to keep the games off the air or hurt the fans. In a way, we're fighting for the future of the team and the productivity of the team and the ability to win championships."
And one more thing: If anyone from the Rockets, CSN Houston or Comcast wants to talk, just give us a call. We'll listen.