Dish Network Corp. Chairman Charlie Ergen hasn't ruled out a partnership with Sprint Nextel Corp. among the various future wireless scenarios that could involve the satellite TV giant.
Time will tell if that's just wishful thinking. These days, Ergen's been ruffling Sprint's feathers in the form of a rival bid for Clearwire LLC. Since then, Dish and Sprint have been stating their cases as to why their respective offers give Clearwire shareholders the best option. (See Analyst: Dish's Clearwire Bid Has 'Slim Chance' and Dish Puts In Rival Bid for Clearwire.)
On Wednesday's fourth quarter earnings call, Ergen said what's good for Clearwire could also be good for Sprint.
"It's not a bad deal for Sprint because they end up with a lot of capital to help their build out, particularly with Clearwire," Ergen said. "If that transaction was to happen, Sprint would be the most likely partner."
Clearwire, meanwhile, is still reviewing Dish's overture. (See Clearwire Doesn't Rule Out Dish Deal.)
Ergen said Dish will still have a number of options available if the Clearwire play doesn't pan out, and he doesn't consider an outright sale of Dish's spectrum as a desired outcome. Dish can still try a build-out on its own (the company plans to start tests of its system later this year), but he made it clear again that Dish would like to avoid going it alone. (See Qualcomm to Make Dish's Mobile Broadband Chip .)
"We have plenty of time to do that and make the right decisions and so forth," Ergen said. "I think the focus for the next year will be to figure out what the best path for us, with our preference being to partner with somebody that's in the business today. The trick is not to lose a lot of money while you're trying to make the long-term strategic call."
Ergen also brought up the possibility of a bidding war for Clearwire, which would in all likelihood stick a fork in any hook-up between Dish and Sprint. "Were we to lose that bidding war, or we did not prevail for our offer for Clearwire, then Sprint's probably not the likely partner," he said.
If Dish fails on the Clearwire front, Ergen says there are still "alternatives" he could pursue, but would not elaborate.
"We're not going to give you our strategy," he told analysts and media. "We're not going to give you all the inside playbook because if you play poker you don't do very well when you show everybody else your cards. It's really, really hard to win that way."
So, don't expect Ergen to show what he'd holding until all the money's down. And Ergen's confidence doesn't offer much help. He's either he's got a good hand or he's making a big time bluff.
But the goal remains the same: "We're playing to win," he said.
So in the meantime, we leave you with this: