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MLB finalizes seven-year rights extension with Turner

Major League Baseball has finalized a seven-year media-rights deal with Turner Sports worth more than $3.7bn (€3.2bn), keeping the WarnerMedia-owned outlet in the fold as one of the league’s key partners.

The long-term extension, which had been two years in development and actively near completion for months, will run from 2022-28 and continue Turner’s postseason rights to half of the League Championship Series and Division Series each year. Turner will also have one Wild Card Game each year.

But in the regular season, Turner’s MLB focus will shift from Sunday afternoons, where the network had struggled annually to create a strong presence with viewers, to a newly-created Tuesday night rights package featuring a weekly national game telecast, with the regular-season rights also enlarging from a half season to a full one.

And also critically, the contract extension features a sizably enhanced digital rights package that includes increased highlights rights for Turner properties including Bleacher Report and new TV Everywhere rights for authenticated subscribers. Those digital rights are fundamental to the contract extension, and Turner would not have committed to the fee increase it did without them.

The deal extends a near 50-year relationship between the companies, dating to 1973 when MLB games first aired on TBS predecessor WTCG.

“As we prepare for another year of exciting October baseball, I am proud Turner Sports will continue to be a part of the postseason as we expand on this long-term partnership,” said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. “This agreement positions both organizations for mutual growth.”

The deal, averaging to about $535m per year, represents a 65-per-cent annual increase over the average of $325m Turner currently pays in an eight-year deal that will expire after the 2021 season.

The agreement syncs up with a separate, $5.1bn deal MLB signed with Fox Sports agreed to November 2018 that represented a somewhat similar 40-per-cent increase from that network’s prior baseball rights deal.

Turner additionally will develop a new baseball studio show hosted by Ernie Johnson, who had previously led play-by-play MLB coverage for the network, along with Hall of Fame former pitcher Pedro Martinez, and former MLB All-Stars Jimmy Rollins and Curtis Granderson, who is helping a lead an effort to increase participation by Blacks in baseball.

“We’re delighted to extend our long-standing relationship with Major League Baseball and all of the opportunities this agreement offers us as we broaden our coverage of the game across all of our platforms,” said Jeff Zucker, chairman of WarnerMedia News & Sports. “We will continue to further evolve our multiplatform delivery of content with a focus on storytelling and innovation in all forms.”

MLB is also in talks with ESPN about renewals for the current eight-year, $5.6bn deal that also goes through 2021, representing the last open rights package for the league. It is not known when that agreement will get done, but a rights fee increase similar to that of Fox and Turner is likely. ESPN is expected to retain its signature Sunday Night Baseball franchise.

The Turner deal also contains provisions to alter if baseball makes a long-term fundamental change to its postseason format. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the massive adjustment to the 2020 MLB regular season, this year’s playoffs were expanded from 10 teams to 16.