NEW YORK - While the New York Yankees and cable company Cablevision continue to be locked in a game of hardball, brand and reputation experts are rooting for the baseball team.Cablevision and the Yankees have yet to reach an agreement about how the cable outlet will carry the team's new channel, the YES Network. Cablevision has insisted on offering YES as a premium channel, while the team wants YES to be offered as part of the basic subscription. Other New York-area cable companies have agreed to offer YES as a basic channel. Since YES has the exclusive right to broadcast 130 Yankee games, and Cablevision has a virtual monopoly in many local markets, millions of Yankee fans are without television access to games. As the baseball season marches into its third week and Cablevision looks set to keep YES as a premium channel, reputation experts are talking of the damage caused to the Cablevision brand. While the Yankees have adroitly used their most beloved players to make public pleas to Cablevision, the cable company's usually inconspicuous brand image has taken a series of whacks. "Cablevision's relationship with its customers is based on one thing: access to programs that their customers want to see,
said David Martin, executive director of brand and reputation consultancy Interbrand. "That is interrupted when customers start paying attention to their cable company." Cablevision's stock price has suffered as a result of the impasse, and some customers have been replacing their Cablevision with satellite service, such as DirecTV. As the situation has dragged on, the public debate between the two sides has become increasingly personal, recently culminating in interviews on Fox News and in The New York Times by YES chairman Leo Hindery, where he lamented giving Cablevision president James Dolan a wedding present when the two were enjoying a more friendly relationship. "The personalities involved are playing a major factor, said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR. "There's a long history between the two sides, and now it's getting a bit ugly."