The Yankees’ YES Network has turned itself around in, well, a New York minute.
Game ratings are up about 60 percent this year from a dismal 2016, when the Bronx Bombers didn’t make the playoffs and cable giant Comcast Corp. had booted the Fox-owned network out of about 900,000 of its subscribers’ homes in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and northeastern Pennsylvania in what the industry calls a carriage dispute.
No YES, no Yankees.
“We needed the baseball gods and a little bit of luck and we were positioned to capitalize if the team performed, and that’s what we did,” said YES Network president and former Comcast exec Jon Litner on his cellphone as he drove back from a board meeting for Little League Baseball and Softball in Williamsport late last week.
Comcast restored YES to its subscribers in the New York TV market at the beginning of this baseball season in a new contract with Fox cable channels. Comcast may have relented because it feared losing the popular, and Trump favorite, Fox News, which could have led to deep Comcast subscriber losses.
Content conglomerates, such as 21st Century Fox, negotiate for the distribution of portfolios of cable channels, giving them leverage in the talks. (21st Century Fox owns 80 percent of YES and the Yankees’ owners have the remaining 20 percent; 21st Century also owns Fox News.)
Then there are the Yankees themselves. As they say in retail, it’s all about the merchandise. The same holds for cable sports channels. When a team does well, the network’s TV audience soars. When a team stinks, TV viewership tanks.
Having endured the drama of aging star Alex Rodriguez when he hung up his uniform in 2016 and other personnel changes, the Yankees now are fielding a competitive team of younger players: slugger phenom Aaron Judge, catcher Gary Sánchez, and fastballer Luis Severino, among others.
Not only is the team winning, but fans believe that their Yankees are gunning for an American League East title — at minimum, a wild-card slot.
About half of the TV audience gains on the YES Network can be tied to the new deal with Comcast. The bigger factor, though, is the resurgent team. YES says an average of 343,000 viewers watched games in the first half of this season, and game ratings have climbed about 9 percent since the All-Star break. (In the Philadelphia area, the YES Network is available from other carriers without live games due to MLB TV restrictions, however Comcast carries it in both the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre areas, which are part of the Yankees’ TV market.)
Litner, 53, headed Comcast’s regional sports networks and the former Versus sports channel in Philadelphia between 2007 and 2011. After Comcast’s deal for NBCUniversal in 2011, he relocated to New York and the NBC Sports Group. He joined YES in September 2016.
Litner has retained a home in Villanova from his Comcast days but resides mostly in Westport, Conn. He can’t help but follow the Phillies. “My orphan children,” he calls them.
The Phillies have faced some of the same issues as the Yankees — transitioning to younger players after the retirement or trading of franchise players. Today, the Phillies have the worst record in baseball, while the Yankees are likely to make a postseason run.
“A tale of two cities,” the Yale undergraduate and Cornell Law School grad says, leaving it at that.