On April 1, the New York Yankees opened their season against the Baltimore Orioles. And for the first time in more than a decade, 3 million Cablevision subscribers in the New York area were unable to tune in and watch their beloved Yanks on TV. Right up to the first pitch, in fact, the Bronx Bombers waged an intensive preseason PR campaign against cable-TV megalith Cablevision.With the team's contract with the MSG cable network ending in 2001, the Yankees spent much of the off-season setting up the YES (Yankees Entertainment and Sports) Network, a 24-hour-a-day station telecasting 130 regular-season games, classic Yankee moments, interview shows, and other sports-related programming. YES reached agreements with 25 other service providers, including AOL Time Warner, DirecTV, and RCN - but found itself at a bulwark with Cablevision. However, the organization felt it could stir up enough grassroots support to pressure Cablevision - the largest provider of cable TV in the New York area - to carry YES for its three million subscribers.
The dispute revolved around the fact that the Yankees wanted YES offered as part of the basic cable package, and would charge Cablevision $2 each month per subscriber. Cablevision balked, refusing to pay the $70 million the Yanks wanted, and countered that it would add the network as a premium channel for those who wanted to subscribe to it. Unhappy, YES walked away from the table, and the finger-pointing began.
No professional baseball team has a history or legacy as rich as that of the New York Yankees. As a result, the Bronx Bombers inspire fierce loyalty and devotion from their fans. The hope, therefore, was to tap into the power of these feelings, and put pressure on Cablevision to cave in and carry the YES Network under the conditions the Yankees originally set out.
On the defensive, however, Cablevision was ready to execute a smear campaign, portraying the Yankees as greedy. The cable provider said that it too was a fan of the Yankees, but deemed it unfair to raise cable prices for all viewers when some may not have the money for the increase - or may not even be baseball fans in the first place.
Pinning its hope on the heritage of the Yankee legacy and the loyalty of its fans, YES fired the first shot by publishing an editorial in New York City newspapers that firmly laid the lack of an agreement at the feet of Cablevision.
"The only place in the metropolitan area where you won't get the YES Network is on Cablevision systems, since Cablevision has so far refused to carry YES,
wrote YES chief executive Leo Hindery.
In the same letter, Hindery suggested that Yankee fans switch to DirecTV if they wanted the YES Network. YES took out ads in newspapers and on local radio stations to further pressure the cable empire. DirecTV helped pay for the ads, and sent salespeople door to door in Cablevision-heavy areas of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The satellite provider also set up a booth at Yankee Stadium to encourage fans to switch to its service.
Cablevision responded by releasing a letter that its president James Dolan had sent to YES Network executives. "It is Cablevision's desire to preserve customer choice, present all the Yankees games to those who want to see them, and avoid having to raise rates for all of our customers, many of whom are not Yankees fans and do not want to pay for this programming,
The cable provider also ran a TV commercial highlighting the fact that it would be carrying 32 regular-season Yankee games through ESPN and other channels, and that it was working with the Yankees toward a resolution. Cablevision also offered a rebate to customers who complained over the cable provider's refusal to carry YES.
The ensuing argument and failed meetings between the two sides attracted so much media attention, that New York politicians like Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) entered the fray, demanding an end to the dispute. Hindery even appeared on CNN to discuss the feud.
As hoped, the pressure paid off in that Yankee fans started a grassroots petition demanding that Cablevision carry the YES Network. However, the Yankees struck out with Cablevision, and are staring at a projected loss of $70 million in revenue, not to mention further losses in the lowered advertising rates on the YES channel.
But conservative estimates say that Cablevision could lose 90,000 subscribers because of the media attention that the fiasco has attracted. Its stock dropped 7%, to its lowest point in three years. Working in Cablevision's favor, however, was the fact that James Dolan and his fight became the subject of a New York Times personality profile.
The only winner in this fight has been DirecTV, who has received over 200 phone calls a day from Yankee fans wanting to switch to the satellite service. Sign-ups for DirecTV jumped more than 20% during the month of March. "Obviously, the Yankees resonate with fans, and are a highly coveted brand to work with,
says Bob Marsocci, spokesperson for DirecTV.
Ironically, Cablevision may also end up pocketing some cash from customers switching to DirecTV since the cable giant owns The Wiz, a popular New York-based electronics store that sells DirecTV systems and subscription packages.
Another season of baseball is in full swing, and there seems to be no thaw in the feud. A group of fans has even filed suit against Cablevision, asking that the cable network carry YES as negotiations continue.
Nevertheless, both sides are sticking to their guns, and for now, thousands of fans have to satisfy their Yankee craving by following one of two old-fashioned methods: listening to the radio, or going to Yankee Stadium.