For N.Y. Yankees fans,it's cable at the bat

A battle over broadcast rights turns hardball Â- leaving millions without televised baseball games.

There is no joy in Scarsdale, Montauck, or Glen Cove....

Poet Ernest Thayer's swaggering mighty Casey had it easy: He only had to face a fastball. Now, millions of New York baseball fans have a more daunting challenge: They can't even see the pitchers.

From living rooms to sports bars, New York-area residents can't watch their pinstriped Yankees on cable TV. With the baseball season not even a month old, they have no reception, as two of the nation's largest sports-franchise owners battle over cable money.

And these two owners play hardball. George Steinbrenner, the ultra-competitive owner of the Yankees, and James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks (NBA) and the Rangers (NHL), are in a public battle that makes Thayer's Mudville seem like a pretty tame place. There are daily press releases, county hearings, even a class-action lawsuit brought by angry fans. Local politicians are denouncing the lack of Yankees games as an affront to voters.

At issue are the Yankees' broadcast rights. For the past 12 seasons, Mr. Dolan's MSG network has broadcast the Bronx Bombers' games. But last year, the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network (YES) Â- partially controlled by Mr. Steinbrenner Â- bought out the contract, so the American League champs could show up on their own network. Now, the two sides are battling over the pricing for Yankees games to run on Dolan's Cablevision with its 3 million customers.

Until the two sides agree, communities served by Cablevision won't see the Yankees except when games air on CBS. That includes sports bars just across the street from the "house that Ruth built."

There is a certain irony to the fight: Only a few years ago, Steinbrenner was willing to sell the Yankees to the Dolans as long as he Â- "The Boss" Â- continued to run the team. The Dolans turned him down. Since then, the Yankees have been dominant on the diamond, while Dolan owns losing teams.

Such battles are growing more common, as sports owners try to increase the value of their franchises by starting some cable competition. In most cities, there is only one owner of regional sports-network properties, says John Mansell, a senior analyst at Paul Kagan Associates.

"When a contract comes up for renewal, most team owners want an auction, which can't happen with one regional sports network," he says. "So they threaten to start their own, or cut a deal with the cable operator, or form a joint venture with other team owners."

In Los Angeles, Disney, which owns the Anaheim Angels and the Mighty Ducks (NHL), went up against Fox, which owns the Dodgers and the regional sports network. In Dallas, Tom Hicks, owner of the Rangers and the Stars (both NHL), threatened to begin his own network to challenge Fox as well.

Sometimes the strategy works: Mr. Hicks ultimately came to terms with Fox for $500 million over 15 to 20 years for television and cable rights.

In fact, the New York situation is "déjé vu, all over again," to quote Yankees wordsmith Yogi Berra.

Twelve years ago, Paramount's MSG Network outbid Sports Channel New York, then owned by Cablevision, for the rights to the Yankee games. The Dolan company then refused to carry the games for the 1988-'89 season. It ultimately did reach an agreement, and eventually bought the MSG network.

This time, however, the Dolans may be the ones under pressure to reach an agreement. Even without Cablevision's 3 million subscribers, the YES network ratings were equal to the Yankees' on Dolan's MSG channel. With those numbers, YES will finally be able to sell ads.

At the same time, there are some estimates that Cablevision could lose well over 100,000 disappointed subscribers.

With cable subscribers valued by Wall Street at over $5,500 apiece, this could "cost" the company over $500 million.

Cablevision stock, reflecting this uncertainty, is down 43 percent over the past year. However, according to Jim Maiella, a Cablevision spokesman, "defections to satellite TV are minimal." Consumers calling Cablevision to complain about baseball receive a toll-free number, where an operator says the contract is being negotiated.

Mr. Maiella of Cablevision won't say any more. But, according to a YES spokesman, there are no negotiations currently under way. And Dolan, the president, says the company will give rebates to offset the loss of the games.

"What good is a rebate?" asks Steven Shapiro, who now listens to the games on the radio at his Larchmont house. "I want to see Jason Giambi hit home runs over Babe Ruth's memorial."

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