When the Mariners signed their current television deal with ROOT Sports, it was seen as a coup for the club. The Mariners' 10 year, $450 million television deal took effect in 2010, and was among the richest in baseball when signed in 2007. But things have changed a lot since then, not just with baseball, where cable television deals have skyrocketed over the last couple of year, but in the landscape of cable sports television in the Northwest and beyond that ensures that when the M's opt out of their deal in 2015, they will receive a significant upgrade in compensation.
The National Landscape:
While the Mariners' deal placed it in the upper echelon of baseball at the time, it has since been surpassed by a number of clubs, leaving it unable to compete even in its own division. The Texas Rangers' deal is for 20 years and $3 billion. The Angels' 20 year deal is reportedly for more. Even the San Diego Padres are getting north of $50 million per season with their new deal. These number alone make the Mariners' contract seem paltry. While not New York, Los Angeles, or Dallas, the Mariners have a very interesting market because it includes not only Seattle-Tacoma, but another top-25 market in Portland, and the biggest geographical area in baseball that includes a bunch of small markets. And, unlike the majority of teams in the sport, they don't share their territory with other teams.
The Northwest Landscape:
The previous paragraph isn't really new to anybody who follows baseball. This paragraph isn't really new, either, though I haven't seen anyone connect these dots together. There are currently two RSNs in the Northwest--Root Sports and Comcast SportsNet Northwest. Once upon a time, the only one that existed was FSN, Root's precursor, and the channel had a ton of programming. It had the Mariners. It had both Sonics and Trail Blazers basketball. It also carried not only the Pac-10s national broadcasts, but had local contracts with all four of the northwest Pac-10 teams for their regional contracts as well.
Slowly, that programming began to leave FSN. The Ducks were first, becoming disillusioned with having to share a broadcast partner with so many other teams and began to produce their own broadcasts for statewide distribution on broadcast channels. Next was the Trail Blazers. This contract came up in the middle of the "Jail Blazers" era, with sagging ratings and attendance as Portland became angry with the off-court antics of the team. FSN lowballed the offer to the Blazers, figuring that they wasn't really anywhere else for them to go. Comcast swooped in, bought those rights in addition to those with the Ducks, and there became competition in the local TV market.
It seemed an okay gamble for FSN, as they still had Sonics games to show in their primary market. But the Sonics left town. And this offseason dealt another big loss for ROOT, as the new Pac-12 television contract has shut them out of any Pac-12 content, national or regional, with the creation of the Pac-12 Network. Currently, ROOT has the Mariners as its crown jewel, with the Timbers/Sounders soccer and Gonzaga basketball being their only other major content of note. Their other stuff is filler--Big Sky Football, WHL Hockey, etc. CSN faces a similar problem. The Ducks took away a big portion of their content. Other than the Blazers, they fill time with studio shows, Portland State Football and Vancouver Canucks Hockey. With only two major teams up for grabs in the region (the Seahawks don't count because NFL deals are all national), and no longer any major college content to be had, it has to be questioned whether the region can continue to support two separate RSNs. ROOT needs to keep the Mariners to ensure its existence--can't have an RSN without a major team to showcase--and CSN could fill a giant summer hole in its programming, kill off its rival, and add a hefty increase to its subscriber fees in the process.
More teams is, of course, the wild card, and such a scenario could happen if the new SODO arena is built. If a new NBA and/or hockey team is added to the region, there is talk of that team creating their own RSN, again with a giant summer hole to fill. Or, the Mariners could simply create their own RSN, leaving the existing ones for dead.
The original FSN had a ton of content, but the situation has changed dramatically. There are a lot of buyers, and not a whole lot of goods to be bought. Further, those without any goods may not be able to continue to exist. It has all the elements of a bidding war in 2015--a bidding war that should be very profitable for the Mariners.