Fastball Sports Productions will partner with WKYC Channel 3 to broadcast 150 regular-season games and eight Grapefruit League games throughout the Indians' TV territory.
The deal brings to an end the Indians' 16-year partnership with FSN Ohio, which had been the club's sole local TV home since 2002.
"We strongly believe that this is in the best interest of the franchise to take this route," team president Paul Dolan said. "All you have to do is look to other clubs that have done this and the success they have enjoyed. We expect the same kind of success, proportionate to our market size."
The successful clubs to which Dolan referred to include the Yankees and their YES Network and the Red Sox and their New England Sports Network.
But other clubs in smaller markets, such as the Astros and Twins, have seen their regional sports networks falter.
Where those networks didn't come through -- and where the Indians expect to succeed -- is in securing cable outlets to provide the channel to a broad base of fans. The Indians have taken the first step toward avoiding that problem by signing a non-exclusive, long-term distribution agreement with Time Warner Cable, Ohio's largest cable system operator.
Terms of the Time Warner deal were not disclosed, but with industry reports indicating that Time Warner will soon acquire the Adelphia and Comcast cable outlets in the Cleveland area, Dolan said the team has already guaranteed at least half of the roughly 3 million FSN viewers will have access to the network.
Fastball Sports' aim from this point forward is to secure deals with other cable and satellite outlets so that the remaining half of the viewership will be covered, as well.
"I'm confident [by Opening Day] we will have had discussions with the distributors and made a fair offer to make the games available," Dolan said. "We are certainly aware in virtually every scenario [involving regional sports networks], there have been issues early in the process. Some of those issues have been fatal. Even the successful networks have had issues in the early portion. But we're hopeful, given the compelling nature of our programming, we will have success in getting 100 percent distribution."
The new network, which does not yet have an official name, is scheduled to carry 130 of the club's regular-season games in '06, as well as eight Spring Training games.
WKYC will broadcast 20 regular-season games in high definition, mostly on weekends.
The WKYC affiliation ensures that the team will bring to an end a four-year run in which Indians games were not broadcast locally on "free" TV. WKYC will be the first local over-the-air station to broadcast Tribe games since WUAB Channel 43 did so in 2001.
WKYC will serve as the production arm for the Fastball Sports Productions channel. The channel is expected to carry exclusive features that go beyond the standard game broadcasts. It will not, however, be a 24-hour channel in the initial going.
"It will be exclusively Indians programming, as of today," Dolan said. "Our goal is to get to a point where it is a full-time regional sports network with full-time programming. We will move forward from there. But for us, distribution is key right now."
With the distribution deals taking up the majority of the Fastball Sports focus for now, Dolan said decisions about on-air talent will be made in the coming months.
The TV deal will not have any short-term effects on the team payroll, but the club is hoping the new network will eventually build on the $16.5 million brought in annually from FSN Ohio and allow the Tribe to increase the payroll from year to year.
In fact, Dolan said the new network's expected revenues were already factored into the 2006 payroll, which is expected to eclipse $60 million.
"We think this is the way to generate more revenue, and we will put it back in the payroll in order to support the team," Dolan said. "There is certainly risk that we will not generate the revenue we think we will. We think that risk lies largely in the first couple years. But we are trying to build a strong, viable business."
The initial viability of the business is dependent on the club's efforts to make those deals with other cable and satellite outlets.
"In the first couple years, there may be transition issues," Dolan said. "But at the end of the day, I would hope the cable operators throughout the area would recognize that what you have here is a local company taking control of its local product."