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For Twins fans, TV deal is a losing proposition
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The only way many fans will be able to watch many Twins games this year on TV, is at a bar. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
The Major League Baseball season begins in two weeks and many Minnesota Twins fans are still wondering how closely they'll be able to follow their team on television this year. Nearly two-thirds of the Twins' games will be televised on a network that is currently unavailable to most Minnesotans.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Minneosta's newest regional sports network has been televising college and high school hockey and basketball all winter. Lots of fans have heard of Victory Sports. But what do they really know about it?.

"I just know I don't get nothing," said an unidentified sports fan was part of the throng shoehorned into The Loon Cafe in Minneapolis as the University of Minnesota men's basketball team tipped off against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Conference tournament.

His chagrin, common among his fellow Twin Cities fans, stems from his inability to tune in Victory Sports on his home cable or satellite television system. To see Victory's telecast of the Gopher playoff game, he crowded into one of the handful of sports bars that have rigged up systems to receive this much talked about but little seen channel.

Fans like Cal Franklin would prefer to watch from home and dread the prospect of a baseball season in which a broadcasting dispute keeps them from seeing most of their favorite teams' games.

"I think it's frustrating right now because everyone wants to watch these games and no one has access to Victory. So, when's this deal going to happen? When's it going to get done? Let's get it done so we can watch our games," he said.

When Major League Baseball teams agreed to a revenue sharing plan a year and a half ago, club executives got to see how much each of the thirty teams was making from its local cable television contract.

Those numbers led to the Twins' decision to start their own network, and they named team executive Kevin Catoor the president of Victory Sports.

"Our rights fees that the Twins were generating were in the bottom five of Major League Baseball. And being that we're in the 14th-largest market, have won two division championships, and the viewership of the Twins is very significant in this marketplace, we decided to start our own network," he said.

Fox Sports Net and its predecessor, Midwest Sports Channel, have produced the Twins' cable telecasts for the past fourteen years. Catoor was the top executive at Midwest Sports Channel when it started. He says the network benefitted from the absence of competitors in the Minnesota cable sports market.

Over the years, Fox Sports has paid the Twins an agreed-upon fee for the right to be the team's cable network. The network then charges a fee to cable and satellite companies that want to carry the channel, such as Comcast, Time Warner, or Direct TV.

Catoor says by starting their own cable network, the Twins have now eliminated the middleman. Cable profits can now pass through Victory Sports right back to the Twins to help them put a competitive team on the field. At least, that's the theory. The reality is that Fox Sports Net is on the roster of channels offered by the region's leading cable and satellite providers, while Victory Sports is not.

Time Warner Cable, Minnesota, serves more than 200,000 customers, most in Minneapolis and its southwestern suburbs. Division President Mike Munley says Twins owner Carl Pohlad and his sons are trying to make more money through their new network than cable customers are willing to pay.

"I think it's all about money," he said. "I think it's about the Pohlad family trying to get as much money as they can for their baseball product, which they have a right to do. But my job is to try to protect our subscribers and try to keep our rates down and that's what we're doing."

Munley and other cable officials say they've proposed offering Victory Sports as part of their digital cable service, which would allow customers who want the channel to pay extra for it. Catoor says, though, that Victory needs to be available on the less expensive tier of channels to which most customers subscribe.

The area vice president of Comcast Cable Communications, Bill Wright, says the sports fans among the company's 340,000 Twin Cities area customers were happy with the Twins on Fox Sports Net. Wright says most Comcast subscribers are not interested in paying more to get Victory Sports. "We've polled our customers and 85 percent of our customers don't want to see carraige of the Twins if it results in higher cable prices," he said.

Victory Sports has forged agreements with the cable operators that serve many of the small towns in Minnesota and some in North Dakota. Markets as large as Winona, Hibbing, and Detroit Lakes do have Victory Sports. But Catoor says none of the six companies that provides cable and satellite programming in Minnesota's largest markets is actively negotiating with Victory.

John Mansell, who follows sports media businesses for Kagan Research of Carmel, California, says there's been an increase recently in the number of pro teams with their own television networks. Mansell says the success of those networks varies. He says in some markets cable providers have refused to carry them, especially during their first year, while they gauge the network's likelihood for success.

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