Time Warner strikes out Padres in cable negotiations

by Mike Heral

Let’s play word association. Name the first five things that come to mind that symbolize San Diego. Mine are the beach, zoo, SeaWorld, San Diego State and even the Chargers. It’s a safe bet the Padres would appear on few lists. They are poised to drop further, now that the 22 percent of San Diego County residents who subscribe to Time Warner Cable are unable to watch the Padres on TV. Padres ownership is situated in one of the smallest television markets in Major League Baseball and needs Time Warner Cable more than Time Warner needs the Padres.

The Padres should be used to not being needed by now. On average, the Padres rank 16th out of 30 MLB teams in attendance since 2001. Only one playoff contender ranks lower than the Padres: the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s difficult to field winning teams without strong home attendance and equally strong local TV ratings.

Ratings of Padres game ratings declined in three of the seasons between 2007 to 2011. In an effort to improve ratings, the Padres decided to hire well-respected Dick Enberg to provide play-by-play. Unlike football with its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 16-game schedule, the 162-game baseball season requires announcers with whom viewers can build quasi-familial relationships. That’s not happening in San Diego. Fans aren’t watching, even with the Padres employing a 14-time Emmy-winning broadcaster.

Poor television ratings don’t provide leverage in the Padres’ protracted battle with the county’s second-largest cable provider. Declining demand doesn’t pressure Time Warner to pass costs to subscribers—especially subscribers who are probably resentful of another premium hike.

Price increases in the cable industry are too common. ABC News reported the cost of cable subscriptions rose 30 percent in the past five years. The Miami News reported half of the average cable bill goes to sports programming. The average cost of a cable subscription of $86 is expected to rise to $200 by 2020. An ever-increasing live sports premium remains the driving factor in that stupefying rise.

Time Warner is partially to blame for what some in Congress consider runaway premium costs. It paid an estimated $3 billion during a 20-year period to carry Los Angeles Lakers games and at least $7 billion for L.A. Dodgers games. The perennial championship-contending Lakers are ratings drivers, but the Dodgers arguably haven’t been the Southland’s best baseball team dating back to the L.A. Angels of Anaheim’s first World Series appearance in 2002. Holding the line against the combined demands of Fox and the Padres is hypocritical—or at least it would be if any San Diegan could be bothered to take proactive action about the also-ran status of this area’s only professional baseball team.

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and the city council encouraged fans to register complaints on the city’s website to build awareness to let Time Warner know that angry Padres fans will change cable companies if they can’t watch the games. I doubt there’s going to be many takers for Filner’s suggestion, judging by the empty seats during the Padres’ first 2013 homestand. San Diegans seem content to do anything other than watch Padres games.

Part of the apathy stems from baseball’s decline in sports fans’ hearts. Not a single millennial was alive when baseball could call itself the nation’s pastime without seeming sounding ironic. But there was once a time when the World Series was as important to the nation as the Super Bowl is today. That began declining in 1972, when baseball had its first work strike. Baseball suffered seven more work stikes, culminating with the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Professional baseball players and team owners are their own worst enemies.

The Padres desperately need attention. Allowing a sizable portion of regional eyeballs to set their sights on anything other than Padres broadcast is not in their best interest. Despite the compromised assertions of San Diego radio sports talk show hosts, the Padres and Fox Sports are not in the driver’s seat in negotiations. Ownership should convince Fox Sports to wave the white flag and strike a compromise with Time Warner. While they do risk angering other providers already carrying Fox Sports, Padres’ ownership has the chance to operate from a position of strength should the team produce a consistently winning product by the end of the contract.

The Padres have a long way to go before becoming as universal a symbol of San Diego as its beaches. Uncompromising TV package demands only move them further into obscurity. The Padres must swallow pride they’ve never earned and do what’s best for promoting a product not currently in demand.