Who's Got the Best Shot at CSN Houston: NBC Sports Group, AT&T or Fox Sports?

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It's been a little more than three months since Judge Marvin Isgur put CSN Houston into bankruptcy. It's been nearly three months since the Houston Astros appealed that ruling to Judge Lynn Hughes. Hughes has received the parties' briefs on the bankruptcy ruling, and he's attempted multiple times to mediate a settlement. But so far he's issued no ruling on the appeal, and there's been no settlement.

CSN Houston's still on the air, still broadcasting Astros games over a network that very few people can watch. The ratings are small, and while people used to be frustrated about this, most no longer care. Isgur continues issuing the necessary orders to keep the network's lights on and employees paid, but otherwise, there's no change. The Astros bleed money. The Rockets bleed money. All of the people owed money by the network are left in impotent rages.

So the clown show continues, seemingly waiting in vain for the adults to supposedly start acting like adults. This all needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. This is about more than carriage and which corporate entity screwed over which corporate entity. There are real lives at stake, real paychecks for studio crew and anchors and camera people. It's about more than just how much money Jim Crane's losing, it's about how much money contractors are still owed, contractors who depend on this money for rent and utilities and equipment.

John Ourand with the Sports Business Journal reported last week that three companies were maneuvering to pick up the media rights of the Astros and Rockets. The rights deals for both teams would be significantly less than what they were to earn under the CSN Houston deal, but then again, they're not making anything off of that deal now, so any money would have to be an improvement.

The companies are NBC Sports Group, AT&T and Fox Sports. The NBC Sports Group deal would keep the network alive and not guarantee any additional carriage. The AT&T deal would probably kill the network while starting another, and any deal with Fox Sports would once again make both teams the ugly stepchildren to the Rangers and Mavericks.

Any deal would require the approval of Isgur, but it's likely he would approve the deal in that either of them would allow the Astros and Rockets, two of the partners in the network, to at least recoup some of the money they've lost. Approval of the deal would likely bring about a settlement in the bankruptcy. Debts would be paid at pennies on the dollar for a lucky few. And Jim Crane would undoubtedly continue his lawsuit against Drayton McLane.

The supposed NBC Sports Group bid for the media rights isn't unexpected, seeing as how the entity is the parent of all the Comcast regional sports networks, and it was Comcast that pushed to put the network into bankruptcy. However, Comcast stated several months ago that it was withdrawing its bid to purchase the network out of bankruptcy. According to Ourand's report, NBC Sports Group would pay the teams a total of $80 million for the rights and would also pay the Astros and Rockets $100 million for money already owed. CSN Houston would stay on the air, and there's no guarantee of increased carriage, though as sole owner of the network, the concerns of the Astros over carriage fees would not be able to block any carriage deals.

AT&T's bid would be part of it starting up its own Regional Sports Network. It attempted to do this several years ago, trying to get the Astros and Rockets to go into a network with it instead of Comcast. And according to Ourand's story, AT&T attempted to acquire an equity share in the network last year. Now it would just purchase the rights and start its own network. And with its pending acquisition of DirecTV, the network would gain wider clearance than CSN Houston -- there's no mention in the story of whether there would be Comcast carriage.

This would likely be the end for CSN Houston, though it's possible AT&T would seek to keep most of the current talent and production people. Isgur would have to approve the transfer of the rights from CSN Houston to AT&T, and something would have to be done about winding up the network and trying to get debts paid. It's doubtful AT&T's deal would account for the money that the Astros and Rockets have not been paid by CSN Houston under the current rights deal, so I would expect the judge to insist on a deal settling the bankruptcy affairs before approving a rights fee with AT&T.

The Fox Sports deal seems to be the most unlikely outcome. It's reportedly for far less money than that being offered by NBC Sports Group and AT&T. The only thing it offers is full carriage across the five-state network map. It's good in that it gets the teams back on television for everybody, but it does nothing about the actual network, which is still in bankruptcy, and it just seems doubtful the judge would allow this without all the parties figuring out how to wind up the network and pay off the hundreds of thousands of creditors.

This really needs to end. It's about more than the current Astros ownership group not liking the deal agreed to by the past Astros ownership group, or about Comcast trying to gain control of the network. There are jobs at stake, and creditors on the line for lots of cash. Hughes needs to do his job and make a ruling on the appeal. The sooner the better. An appeal ruling would provide more incentive to get this damn thing settled, to get a plan developed.

Maybe one of the above proposed deals will work out, but there's no real urgency for AT&T or Fox Sports or NBC Sports Group to scoop in and make something work while this whole thing just hangs in limbo. But until that time, the clown show continues. And continues. And continues.

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