Sixers fans in the Philadelphia area could watch live games on the Internet this basketball season for the first time, as long as they pay an extra fee that runs about $20 a month.
Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, which carries 76ers regular-season games on cable TV, might announce the details of the new service by the start of the season Oct. 28. Some negotiations were still taking place, sources said.
Although out-of-market pro sports games have been available online through the sports leagues, regional sports networks were slow to stream local pro games because of fears the Internet would cannibalize TV viewing.
Comcast crafted a plan to avoid that problem. Sixers fans will pay for live games on the Internet, sources say, even if they buy the Comcast's SportsNet channel that televises Sixers games.
Besides the Sixers, Comcast Corp. owns local broadcast rights to the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, and Portland Trail Blazers. Comcast regional sports networks could adopt a similar online pricing plan for those basketball franchises, sources say.
The Sixers plan is a vivid departure from Comcast's broader Internet strategy that was announced this summer in New York and is called "TV Everywhere." Here, Comcast is making cable TV channels available on the Internet to Comcast cable TV subscribers for free.
The economics of sports is different than general entertainment, experts say, and most likely led to the extra-fee policy. The National Basketball Association charges Comcast, or any operator, $3,000 per game to stream local games. There are 82 regular-season NBA games.
Comcast would not comment on specifics. Spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said in a statement: "We are exploring the issue of live pro-game streaming with our team partners to find the most effective solution."
Comcast, ESPN, and others are testing online business models to capture audience and revenue as viewers migrate online from traditional TV.
This season, New York Yankees and San Diego Padres games were available on the Internet in their local markets for a fee. Major League Baseball is negotiating with other teams and local broadcast rights-holders to show more live baseball games next year on the Internet, industry sources say.
In a separate and controversial business model, ESPN has been charging broadband providers a per-subscriber fee of 10 cents to 25 cents for ESPN360.com, an online sports site with 3,000 live games. ESPN is a division of entertainment giant Walt Disney Co.
Small cable operators and rural pay-TV companies criticize the per-subscriber fee for ESPN360.com, which they have to pay. They say entertainment companies would like to bundle entertainment networks into broadband bills as they bundle the cable TV channels into cable TV bills. They fear that if ESPN is successful, other entertainment conglomerates could ask Internet providers for per-subscriber fees for Web sites, leading to higher broadband bills and a backlash against broadband providers.
"If ESPN360 is a great product, then have people go out and buy it. Don't make us buy it for them," said Matthew Polka, president and chief executive officer of the American Cable Association in Pittsburgh, a trade industry group of smaller cable companies. Polka's association has submitted comments stating its concerns with ESPN360 to the Federal Communications Commission.
ESPN did not respond to phone calls for response.
Comcast's developing a plan with the Sixers shows the complexity of the online sports media business.
Because of various agreements, Comcast SportsNet can stream Sixers games only in Sixersland. A package of live out-of-market games is available from the National Basketball Association for $134.95 per season over Comcast or another broadband provider, according to the NBA Web site.
Comcast, which is a majority owner of the Sixers through Comcast Spectacor, will offer the online Sixers games on the Internet to people who buy a cable TV service with Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia. The network is available in about three million homes in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and northern Delaware. There are 24 cable TV companies with the Comcast SportsNet channel in the three-state region.
Said Fitzpatrick in his statement: "In Philadelphia and our other markets, we're creating the premier destination for local sports fans by offering around-the-clock original sports coverage, the most local video, and exclusive fan experiences with local teams and players."
Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or email@example.com.