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Will CSN, Blazers reach new deal?



TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers provide plenty of high-profile content for Comcast SportsNet Northwest, which is negotiating with the NBA team on a new contract.Some television viewers watch Comcast SportsNet Northwest to take in a variety of shows and events covering a multitude of programming. Others watch it exclusively for coverage of the Trail Blazers.

Some don’t watch the network at all, or are even aware of it.

The CSN folks are doing all they can to convert those who fall into the latter category. And they’re making progress, vice president/general manager Larry Eldridge says.

“We have become a vastly more robust network in terms of programming and coverage than we did even four years ago, let alone when we started in 2007,” says Eldridge, who came onto the scene in July 2013.

CSN has 1.2 million customers throughout the Northwest. It is owned by the NBC Sports Group and is one of many regional sports networks throughout the country. The other RSN in the Northwest is Root Sports, formerly Fox Sports Northwest and now the property of DirecTV Sports Network and the Seattle Mariners.

CSN has about 35 full-time employees and is affiliated with 15 providers serving Oregon and Washington, including Charter (which came on in 2013), Wave, Frontier and CenturyLink. It has no such agreements with DirectTV and Dish Network.

Among the on-air talent are well-known media personalities such as Dan Sheldon, Jordan Kent, Brooke Olzendam, Dwight Jaynes, Aaron Fentress and Jason Quick. Sheldon and Kent are polished moderators. Olzendam provides sideline reporting and co-hosts a Blazers post-game show. With decades of experience in newspaper sportswriting, Jaynes, Fentress and Quick add journalistic expertise and pen articles for the website “CSNNW.com.”

CSN’s programming features plenty of college sports, primarily on Oregon and Oregon State, though no game coverage. There are weekly “Talking Ducks” and “Talking Beavers” and “#Ducks” and “#Beavers” shows. During the football season, there is an hourlong Saturday morning “GameDay” program, a half-hour Ducks post-game segment and a weekly half-hour “Inside the Huddle” show featuring Oregon State coach Gary Andersen. During basketball season, weekly “Talking Ducks” and “Talking Beavers” shows are aired and are carried while the UO and OSU teams are still alive in the postseason tournaments.

Three weekday talk shows are simulcast with radio — hosted by Isaac Ropp and Jason Scukanec, Dusty Harrah and Cam Cleeland, and Chuck Powell, the latter a Seattle-area program that devotes much of its time to the Seahawks and Mariners.

Since the acquisition by NBC Universal in 2011, CSN has had access to NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar racing, professional golf, English Premier League soccer and the NHL, including a package that offers live programming of games, primarily of the Vancouver Canucks.

NBC is the home of the Olympic Games, and CSN has replay rights for the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene this summer, as well as some of the Olympic events in Rio de Janeiro.

During the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, CSN carried a nightly wrap-up show hosted by Kent.ELDRIDGE

“This year, we’re going to do that show on steroids,” says Eldridge, pun unintended. “Our relationship with NBC Sports was new in 2012. There was a partnership, but not like it will happen for us this July. We’ll send a small army of people to Eugene to provide blanket coverage. We’ll do a special on (decathlete) Ashton Eaton and at least one special on the Olympic trials scene in Eugene.”

CSN also airs an “Outdoor GPS” show at least twice a week hosted by hunting/fishing expert Owen Hayes.

“Owen is a rock star,” Eldridge says. “It has become a franchise show for us.”

More than anything, though, CSN is the Trail Blazer network. When the Blazers’ contract with FSN ended in 2007, Comcast formed the RSN to assume broadcast rights to the NBA team. The network launched on Nov. 1, 2007, coinciding with the start of the Blazers’ season. This season, CSN airs live 60 of Portland’s 82 regular-season games.

There is much, much more, however, on CSN about the local NBA team.

“I don’t think any other RSN in the country provides the same amount of more wrap-around programming,” Eldridge says. “We talk Blazers 365 days a year — during the season, the offseason, leading up to the draft, summer league.”

Blazer programming has been amped up in recent years. During the 2012-13 season, for instance, the “Rip City Live” half-hour pregame show was aired only during home games. The “Talking Ball” postgame show was shown only after games carried by CSN.

Beginning with the 2013-14 season, “Rip City Live” began airing all 82 games. Since February 2014, “Talking Ball” has aired after every game. There also is a short post-game show hosted by Adam Bjaranson and Michael Holton prior to “Talking Ball.”

The latest addition is “The Pulse,” a half-hour interactive show following “Talking Ball,” meaning there are two hours of postgame programming on the network. Plus, the team has its weekly “Courtside” show, and the latest addition is a website-only pregame/postgame show hosted by Jamie Hudson called “The Scoop.”

Blazer games are usually replayed twice — once right after the game, and the next day. “Talking Ball” is re-aired the next day, too.

“Talking Ball” isn’t a house organ.

“The lineup we have is objective and knowledgeable,” Eldridge says. “If the team has a bad game, we’ll talk about that. Our guys are expected to be professionals and journalists.”

The Blazers are in the ninth year of a 10-year, $120-million contract with CSN that ends after the 2016-17 season. Negotiations have begun for a new deal, and both sides say they are amicable.

“We’re very proud to be the primary home of the Trail Blazers, and we hope to extend the relationship for years to come,” Eldridge says. “We’re looking for a multiyear deal.”

Chris McGowan, the team’s president and CEO since 2012, says the Blazers are, too.

“On all levels, we have a good working relationship with CSN,” McGowan says. “Having Larry there has helped. He has been easy to work with. He has brought a fresh perspective to the network and has improved the production quality and the ancillary programming around our games. They’ve done a good job with that.”

Finances are a major part of any such agreement, but a sticking point could be distribution. CSN reached a deal with Charter in 2013, allowing Blazer games to be shown in many areas throughout the state outside the Portland metropolitan area. But DirecTV and Dish are not on board, a thorn in the side to many Blazers fans since CSN was founded nearly a decade ago.

“We’re continually trying to gain the widest distribution we can,” says Eldridge, limited in what he can say on the subject. “We’re in conversations with all of our providers on an ongoing basis.”

The Blazers have taken a heap of criticism from their fans on the issue over the years. The club reportedly attempted to get out of the contract at one point, to no avail, even asking the Federal Communications Commission to require CSN to make the games available to DirecTV and Dish.

“Distribution is super important to us,” McGowan says. “I don’t like the fact there are fans that can’t see our games. Unfortunately, I run a pro basketball team and don’t make distribution decisions. We know it’s an issue, and to the best of our ability, we want to get that solved.”

McGowan sounds as if his first choice is to remain with CSN.

“Right now, our focus is to get a deal done with our current partner,” he says. “I like long-term partnerships. We’ve been working with (CSN) for a long period of time. We’d both like that to continue. If it doesn’t, we’re prepared to talk to the various opportunities out there. There would be a lot of interest in our rights.”

Presumably, Root Sports would be a possible landing spot. The network is distributed to 85 percent of the Northwest market and is available on DirecTV and Dish. The assumption is Root executives will have a discussion with the Blazers at some point.

Another possibility is the re-emergence of Fox Sports, which owns 21 RSNs, though not one in this market. Should the Blazers become available, it’s logical Fox would consider securing the club’s TV rights and operating again in the Northwest.

CSN’s exclusive window to renew its deal with the Blazers extends into the summer. McGowan would like to have a deal with a carrier in place by then.

“The sooner the better, but it’s not something we’re going to rush into,” he says. “We have a timeline, and we’re on it. We still have another year left in the current deal. We still have time.

“It’s a big partnership for both organizations. We try to be thorough and have in-depth conversations to improve on the partnership going forward. I would expect to have something done sometime this summer.”

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