By Dow Jones Business News, October 30, 2013, 03:24:00 PM EDT
By Katy Stech
A Texas bankruptcy judge has given Houston Astros owner Jim Crane until Dec. 12 to negotiate deals with cable
providers to carry the struggling Comcast SportsNet Houston, which broadcasts the baseball team's games, in a bid to
boost the channel's revenue.
After a two-day hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston, Judge Marvin Isgur told Mr. Crane--who criticized Comcast
Corp. ( CMCSA ) officials for failing to find money-making broadcasting deals for the network--to take the lead in
negotiating deals with DirecTV, Time Warner and others that could carry the sports network.
"If I give you clean slate, can you turn this thing around and have it make money?," Judge Isgur asked Mr. Crane
during the hearing before making his baseball team the lead negotiator for the sports network, which it owns along with
Comcast and the Houston Rockets basketball team.
After getting the court's instructions on Tuesday night, Mr. Crane, a Texas businessman who bought the Astros for more
than $600 million in 2011, said he'll reach out to DirecTV, AT&T and Time Warner. Any deal to expand the channel's
distribution would need Judge Isgur's approval before it becomes final, according to court papers.
The network, which launched in October 2012, is broadcast to Comcast customers, but other cable and satellite
companies have been reluctant to carry the network in exchange for subscriber fees some have said are too high. Today,
CSN Houston is available in less than half the region's households.
With his decision Tuesday, Judge Isgur put off the question of whether the sports network should even be in
Comcast moved to force the network into bankruptcy on Sept. 27 by filing an involuntary Chapter 11 petition on its
behalf. In court papers, Comcast officials said that an outside professional was needed to run the network after its
owners--Comcast, the Astros and the Rockets--couldn't agree on how to steer its operations.
The Astros own a little more than 46% of the network; the rest is owned by Comcast affiliates and the Houston Rockets.
Comcast is angling to make a bid for the network at a court-supervised auction.
The bankruptcy filing blocked Mr. Crane from yanking the team's media-rights agreement with the network. He fought to
have the case dismissed, which would enable him to resell the Astros' broadcast rights. Mr. Crane has said the Astros
have talked with Fox Sports about a new deal.
The Rockets, whose fees for their media rights are among the NBA's highest, are siding with Comcast and supporting the
bankruptcy filing, according to court papers.
Judge Isgur put Mr. Crane's dismissal dispute on hold until after the Dec. 12 deadline. He ordered Astros officials to
hold weekly telephone conferences with Comcast and the Houston Rockets management team, and he set a Nov. 13 hearing to
check in on the negotiations.
Comcast SportsNet Houston is one of 12 regional networks that are part of the sports division of Comcast's
NBCUniversal unit, and it pays Comcast an annual fee for management oversight and other operational help. The network
owes more than $100 million to Comcast for a loan that it provided under the deal that created the network last year.
The network employs about 130 workers and broadcasts sports programming out of a 32,000 square-foot space in downtown
Houston, according to its website.
The network's promotional material said that it plans to broadcast more than 135 regular season Astros games and more
than 65 regular season Rockets games. In addition to that, the network broadcasts Houston Dynamo soccer games, high
school football games and sports talk shows.
-Patrick Fitzgerald contributed to this article.
(Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review covers news about distressed companies and those under bankruptcy protection. Go to
Write to Katy Stech at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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