A dispute between Time Warner Cable and the Cumberland County Civic Center over several thousand dollars is threatening the annual broadcast of Maine’s top high school basketball championship games.
Time Warner says it couldn’t reach an agreement with the civic center to reinstall its fiber cable in the arena, leaving the Maine Public Broadcasting Network without a way to televise the Class A boys’ and girls’ championship games on March 1. The state’s biggest high schools play in Class A.
The dispute also could black out games in the Western Maine Class A and Class B regional tournaments in Portland. Only regional tournaments and state championship games played in Augusta and Bangor would be televised, starting Feb. 19.
MPBN said 21,000 to 25,000 people watch each game.
“It’s a shame the Portland games won’t be seen,” said Bill Goodman, the girls’ basketball coach at McAuley High School in Portland, which has won the last three Class A state championships. “Kids like that their grandparents and whole families can see them on TV if they can’t get to the game in person.”
Stephen Ochan, who plays basketball for Deering High in Portland, remembers watching Deering’s run to the Class A boys’ state championship in 2012.
“I followed every step on TV,” he said. “I think the championship should be on TV. It’s good for competition to elevate the exposure of the teams, and good for the community to see what their school is up to.”
Ochan said being on TV would give him a boost as a player.
“It would be really cool. I think players would work a little harder. It would give you some extra incentive to play better, knowing that everyone in the state could see you,” he said.
The dispute centers on Time Warner Cable’s connection to the civic center. Its cable link was removed during the arena’s $34 million renovation, which is nearing completion.
In the past, Time Warner didn’t pay for cable access to the arena because it was a sponsor of the civic center and paid $10,000 to get its name on the scoreboard and tickets to events, civic center officials said.
The cable company chose not to renew its sponsorship, but wanted to reinstall its cable in the arena. The civic center said it would treat Time Warner like any outside vendor and charge a “standard industry fee” to cover power consumption and space rental.
The two sides began talks last spring but couldn’t reach an agreement that would let Time Warner run its fiber cable into the building, said Time Warner spokeswoman Joli Plucknette-Farmen.
Time Warner, the nation’s fourth-largest cable company, would not discuss details of the talks, saying it doesn’t comment publicly on negotiations with potential partners.
When asked about the fee, the civic center’s general manager, Steve Crane, said Time Warner could pay $200 to plug into the arena temporarily to broadcast a specific event, or pay an annual fee of about $5,000 to $8,000 to install a permanent connection.
Time Warner’s revenues for 2013 totaled $22.1 billion, up 3.4 percent from 2012.
Caught in the middle of the dispute is MPBN, which relies on partners to pull together equipment and personnel to cover regional semifinals and finals, and state championship games. Without a connection in the civic center, Time Warner cannot transmit a signal to MPBN.
Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center’s trustees, said, “They want access to the building, but they are using a taxpayer resource. There’s a fee for that. This is not a controversial issue. It’s a commercial issue.”
Time Warner said it wouldn’t be practical to run a temporary cable, so a one-time fee wouldn’t be feasible.
“It’s not common practice for us to run our fiber temporarily because it has to be installed throughout conduits within the building, and once complete it remains there permanently,” Plucknette-Farmen said in a prepared statement.
Civic center officials said MPBN has not contacted them to inquire whether other arrangements could be made.
“We’re open to talking with MPBN. We’re open to working with Time Warner Cable,” Pratt said. “The civic center is pro-high school sports.”
MPBN said it doesn’t have enough personnel or equipment to handle all tournament games. It produces games played at the Augusta Civic Center. Husson University and the New England School of Communications produce the games played at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
All broadcasts are transmitted back to MPBN’s facility in Bangor for distribution statewide on television and online.
Several of Time Warner Cable’s recent decisions have been controversial, including its plan to drop New England Cable News from its channel lineup. It abandoned that plan in December, after customers and lawmakers across the region protested.
In a contract fight in August, Time Warner pulled CBS from its channel lineup in markets such as Los Angeles, New York and Dallas before reaching an agreement a month later. The blackout prompted more than 306,000 subscribers to cancel their subscriptions.
Goodman, the coach at McAuley High, said, “It’s that time of year when people can’t get out of the house, and watching boys’ and girls’ basketball is really exciting.
“To not have the Portland part televised – it’s really a shame. As a fan, I’m disappointed,” he said. “I’m hoping someone can step up and find another solution.”
Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz contributed to this report.
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: