Leadoff: Sizing up Braves owner’s interest in buying Fox Sports South

Braves owner Liberty Media continues to look, albeit cautiously, at a possible purchase of the Fox regional sports networks, including Atlanta-based Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast. 

“It’s a set of assets we know well,” Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei said on a conference call Thursday. “We understand both their strengths and their weaknesses, which are manifest. 

“It would be logical that we would look at it. But we’re going to look at it only on the basis that it’s attractive for us for the long term and that we can see reasonable upside, given what our clear risks in the distribution of these (networks would be) in the changing (distribution) world.” 

The future of Fox’s 22 regional sports networks, known as RSNs, has been up in the air since last summer, when 20th Century Fox reached a $71 billion agreement to sell most of its entertainment assets, including the RSNs, to Disney. That deal is expected to close soon. As a condition of approval, the U.S. Justice Department is requiring Disney, which already owns ESPN, to sell off the regional sports networks that are part of the Fox deal. 

That’s where Liberty Media might come into the picture. 

“We are approaching them with an appropriate caution and appropriate wide-eyed certainty and understanding that we formed a lot of these things with Fox a long time ago,” Maffei said. “We have a lot of history with them and understand those businesses well.” 

Asked if Liberty Media and the Braves would be interested in acquiring Fox Sports South/Southeast in a stand-alone deal separate from the other Fox RSNs that are scattered across the country, Maffei seemed doubtful. 

“While you can’t say for sure, the power comes from having multiple (networks) and giving you leverage,” he said. “As attractive as the Fox South region is – and it may be the most attractive region; it’s among the largest (and) with relatively low rights (fees) – in general having one region gives you less leverage and is a less appealing opportunity. You don’t want to say definitively no to anything, but in principle more is better.” 

Major League Baseball also is among the potential bidders for the Fox regional sports networks, 14 of which carry MLB teams’ games. So there could be a scenario where the Braves owner and MLB are competing bidders.

“I can see why MLB would find it attractive to try and re-consolidate those rights to give them more flexibility into the future,” Maffei said. 

Braves, Hawks and Atlanta United games are televised on Fox Sports South/Southeast.

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LEADOFF LINKS 

> The Braves’ revenue increased to $442 million in 2018 – up 14.5 percent from $386 million in 2017, the team’s first season at SunTrust Park, and up a whopping 69 percent from $262 million in 2016, the final season at Turner Field.  Operating profit before depreciation and amortization soared, too. See full report here.

> The release of the aforementioned financial results came after an offseason in which the Braves’ payroll went down --  and on the same day that the NL East rival Phillies agreed to a 13-year, $330 million contract with Bryce Harper, as Michael Cunningham notes.

> Former UGA running back Elijah Holyfield worked with star sprinter Christian Coleman to prepare for the NFL scouting combine, D. Orlando Ledbetter reports from Indianapolis.

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