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Comcast shooting for Celtics

TV deal would give it leverage over rivals

Comcast Corp. is reportedly close to signing a deal that would give it full control over the rights to air Boston Celtics basketball games, giving it strong leverage over its competitors in the region.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, is near the end of negotiations to buy the remaining 50 percent of Fox Sports Net New England that it doesn't own, and 60 percent of FSN Bay Area , a San Francisco-based channel, from Rainbow Media Holdings LLC . The deal was first reported Feb. 19 in Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal .

"If you're Comcast, you don't need to futz around with 50 percent stakes," said Andrew Baker , media analyst at Cathay Financial Inc. , who pegged the deal's potential value at $200 million to $300 million. "It's a headache for something as big as Comcast."

More important, though, is the effect such a deal might have on the customers of Comcast's competitors. Comcast is already in a battle for subscribers with DirecTV , Dish Network, and FiOS TV , Verizon Communications Inc.'s new service. Having total control over the regional sports channel, which owns TV rights for all 82 Celtics regular season games, could put Comcast in position to ask a high price from its competitors to carry the channel, or to block them from carrying it -- and Celtics games -- altogether.

Comcast representatives declined to comment. Calls to Fox Sports Net New England were referred to a Rainbow Media representative. Neither Rainbow Media, nor the Celtics, returned calls.

Verizon already has waged one battle over Celtics games. Last year, it asked the Federal Communications Commission to force Rainbow Media's parent, Cablevision Systems Corp. , to negotiate a deal for Fox Sports Net New England to appear on FiOS TV , under a rule that forces cable companies to share "must see" programming like sports and local news with their competitors. Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro said the companies came to an agreement in November and that a sale wouldn't affect that arrangement.

Still, when that contract expires, Verizon would have to negotiate a new one with its biggest competitor and then pay Comcast a likely hefty fee for the channel.

"That's true, but it's an important channel to our customers," Santoro said.

Fox Sports Net New England had been part of a larger Fox Sports Net that was jointly owned by Cablevision, Fox network parent News Corp. , and Comcast. That arrangement ended in 2005 when Cablevision restructured itself, leaving News Corp. with no ownership of the local channel, though it still carries some Fox programming.

Sports networks are regarded as among the most important in the cable industry and yield much higher fees from cable and satellite systems than other channels. ESPN, for example, gets more than $2 per subscriber, compared with pennies for many other channels.

Fox Sports Net New England also likely gets high subscriber fees, Baker, the Cathay Financial analyst, said. Cablevision, he speculated, is willing to shed the New England and West Coast sports channels because it doesn't have many subscribers in those areas. On the other hand, sports content is too important to a cable company for Comcast not to control all of the New England channel, where it has many customers.

"If you're Comcast and you're trying to compete in the local market, it's certainly helpful for you to own the content and control your costs. You've got to be in bed with the teams," Baker said.

The company already operates Comcast SportsNet channels in Baltimore , Washington, D.C. , Chicago , Philadelphia , and Sacramento, Calif. , which air shows focused on 39 different teams, according to its website. A spokeswoman refused to confirm what percentage of those channels Comcast owns.

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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