THE STRIKE HITS HOME
Fallout from the walkout reaches TV programmers, merchants, fantasy-league players
NEW YORK — NORMALLY, 100,000 viewers watch the Madison Square Garden's televised broadcasts of the New York Yankees baseball games.
With baseball on strike, MSG's regional cable channel has been showing minor league games, hockey replays, and ''classic'' baseball games. ''There is no chance the ratings are close to a live Yankee baseball game,'' says Doug Moss, the president of MSG.
MSG is not alone. Television networks have had to scramble to find substitutes for the Big Leagues. Acting baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has said that if strike negotiators fail to reach an agreement by today, the season might be canceled.
As a result of the strike so far, ESPN, the all-sports network, has been running minor league baseball, the Canadian Football League, and indoor football games. The strike is particularly galling for Loren Matthews, senior vice president for programming at ESPN, because last November Matthews correctly picked the pennant contenders to broadcast this September. ''We had some pretty significant matchups which we will not be able to replace per se,'' he says.
ABC, which has broadcast movies in place of its scheduled games, planned to televise the World Series, which normally draws a large audience. If the Series is canceled, ABC says it will hand the time over to its Entertainment Division.
The strike has been especially difficult since ABC this year had joined with NBC and Major League Baseball to broadcast the games and share revenue as part of The Baseball Network. According to the New York Times, the new network had only cashed about $30 million of advertisers' and sponsors' checks when the strike began. The combination must reach $330 million in revenue by the 1996 season, the Times reported, or the networks can renegotiate the contract for less money.
If the baseball void continues, it could begin to affect some major advertisers. For example, this fall Chevrolet planned to introduce some new models during the baseball playoffs. But if there is no pennant race, Chevy will have to go into overdrive to find other ways to let viewers know about the changes.
Advertising executive Howard Courtemanche says advertisers can shift to football, the US Open, or other athletic events. ''The strike is probably hurting the stations more than the advertisers,'' he says. MSG, whose advertisers have remained loyal so far, plans to offer alternative air time on early-season Knicks and Rangers games.
Cable giant Time Warner is giving refunds to some viewers who subscribed to sports channels but did not get a full season of baseball. Other networks are considering refunds as well.
Despite the refunds, some executives worry the strike may send viewers to other sports -- permanently. Studies have shown that baseball is losing appeal among fans and viewers. ''This strike is the last thing baseball needed,'' Moss says. ''Our fate is in the hands of the negotiators.''