This month’s Texas Monthly column discusses the bankrupt cable network Comcast SportsNet Houston and what its failure means for the Astros, the Rockets and the Dynamo. With the Rockets in the playoffs and the Astros rebuilding, can the teams find a way to solve the network’s financial problems and get their games in front of a wider audience?
Imagine there was a professional baseball team and only half its fans could see it win. Would the games still matter? For the Houston Astros, the worst team in baseball the past three years, the question has been moot so far—there have been precious few victories to witness. This season, though, fans may have more reason to watch. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan is back with the team, as an executive adviser, and ESPN has declared the Astros’ rebuilt farm system the best in baseball. But finding an Astros game on a TV in Houston will be very difficult.
Comcast SportsNet Houston (CSN Houston), the network with the exclusive rights to broadcast Astros games, is in Chapter 11, and its three owners—the Astros (with a 46.5 percent stake), the Houston Rockets (31 percent), and the cable giant Comcast (22.5 percent)—are bickering over what to do next. Comcast plunged the year-old network into bankruptcy proceedings last fall after failing to shoehorn it into the lineups of providers such as DirecTV, Dish, and Time Warner, which are tired of jacking up the rates they charge to subscribers to pay for ever-more-specialized networks. As a result, Comcast itself is the only major provider that carries CSN Houston, meaning Astros and Rockets games—and Houston Dynamo soccer games—appear in just 40 percent of households with cable or satellite in the greater Houston area. “Both the Astros and the Rockets used to be staples in my home,” says Joseph Theis, a Houston restaurant owner and DirecTV subscriber. “Now they’re really not a part of my life.”
In many major markets, regional sports networks are the new profit centers for team owners, who are always looking to wring more revenue from their franchises. The Los Angeles Angels, for instance, signed a seventeen-year deal with Fox that brings in an average of $95 million in rights fees annually for the team. But without Time Warner and its brethren on board, CSN Houston found it couldn’t afford the Astros’ and Rockets’ licensing fees. And so, in late September, Comcast turned to bankruptcy court to preserve what little value was left in the network. The Astros immediately opposed the filing and have vowed to thwart any attempts to reorganize CSN Houston. The Rockets, by contrast, supported the bankruptcy and, given their status as a possible playoff contender, are eager to get the issue resolved.