Drums thundered, cymbals crashed, spirits were high and optimism was the order of the day as officials with the NBC Sports Group, Comcast, Rockets and Astros and assorted sponsors, advertisers and hangers-on filed into the House of Blues a year ago to celebrate the debut of Comcast SportsNet Houston.
Thirteen months later, many of the same characters will reconvene Monday at a more somber downtown spot: Houston's federal courthouse, where they will argue before a bankruptcy judge the contentious questions of what went wrong with the regional sports network and whether it will survive to see a second birthday.
Awaiting the judge's decision will be a considerable portion of the Astros' and Rockets' fan base, standing by in varying degrees of ill humor to learn when, where or whether they will be able to again see their local teams on their home TVs as they had done for the past 30 years.
For NBC and Comcast, the 2012 debut of CSN Houston represented a financial opportunity in a competitive TV marketplace. For the Rockets, it offered a strong voice in a crowded sports landscape. For the Astros, it was a cornerstone for a new owner's new vision. For fans, it offered laser focus on local teams and players.
A year later, however, the good intentions of October 2012 have paved a road toward red ink, hard feelings, jobs in jeopardy and a partnership in tatters.
"It has been the perfect storm," said Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas and former president of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. "Clearly there is a dispute between the Astros and Comcast. There is a likely dispute between the Astros and Rockets. All have different interests. The network is a good product, but there is a lot of hostility in the air, and these are tough times in a tough market."
The issues are familiar to Houston sports fans: CSN Houston, a partnership among the Astros (46 percent), Rockets (32 percent) and Comcast/NBC (22 percent), despite its award-nominated, well-regarded blend of games and news programming has been unable to obtain carriage deals with DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T U-verse, Suddenlink and other cable systems across a five-state area.
The network is available in only about 40 percent of Greater Houston's 2.2 million TV households and in scattered markets elsewhere, limiting its revenue and forcing the teams to kick in money to keep the network afloat rather than earning money.
On Sept. 27, with Comcast/NBC having missed three monthly rights fee payments to the Astros, the team was within days of yanking its rights, which would have meant an end to the network.
So while fans were at Minute Maid Park that night to watch the Yankees and Astros, attorneys for four Comcast affiliates filed a petition to force the parent company of CSN Houston, Houston Regional Sports Network, into involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
That action prevented the Astros from jumping ship but also opened the possibility that a bankruptcy trustee could strip the teams of their equity or order carriage deals that could make CSN Houston available to more viewers in Houston and beyond.
On the table Monday before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Marvin Isgur will be two motions: the Astros' motion to dismiss the case and Comcast's motion to appoint an interim trustee while the case continues.
"It will take," said Dallas bankruptcy attorney Joe Wielebinski, "the wisdom of Solomon for a judge to sort this one out."
By: David Barron