Any visit to Nats Park reveals the progress: safe streets, plenty of parking lots, a six-acre public sculpture garden on the water, removal of industrial eyesores so the park now affords 180-degree panoramas of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.
But the next five years are crucial as the talented Nats attempt to win more games, grow their fan base and catalyze the growth of neighborhood infrastructure, including restaurants and entertainment. When that happens, an all-star game, a plum lusted after by cities, always follows. Also, postseason play pulls money into any town.
MASN and Angelos claim they’re now partners who love the Nats and wish them well and are just negotiating prudently. May their Pinocchio noses grow until they wrap entirely around their heads.
What’s the right price? Recent average annual rights fees for regional sports networks have ranged from more than $60 million for the Houston Astros and $75 million for the Texas Rangers — in metro areas usually used as rough comparables to the Washington area — to $150 million for the Angels. The Astros and Rangers fees skew high because they are based on multi-decade deals that grow over time — an argument that favors MASN. Conversely, every new RSN deal blows away the previous one. The Astros and Rangers comparables are already, to a degree, obsolete.
Most likely, the Nats’ deal will fall in the $70 million-$90 million range, though all such MLB debates are state secrets. One hidden factor is key: The interests of almost everyone in baseball (except MASN and Angelos) are aligned with the Nats’ getting a rational price. Why? Each new monster regional sports network deal (some contracts now top $1.5 billion) set “comparable” prices for the next team’s negotiation with its TV providers.
If the Nats got shafted, many owners would scream. What’s the point of having a legal monopoly if you don’t band together to drive up prices for your product?
This entire MASN-Nats tussle is about “when” and “how much,” not “if.” A deal has to get finished to set 2013’s MASN price. But you can bet that Angelos and MASN want to string out the Nats as long as possible in hopes of extracting a better deal. The Lerners tend to be phobic about imprecise budget projections, and uncertainty could set them dithering about whether or not to make a July 31 deadline trade that would increase payroll.
The essential unfairness of further delay is bore entirely by the Nats, which is all the more reason for Selig to use his influence, and “best interests” authority, to speed a process that has already damaged the Nats.
This isn’t astrophysics. The Nats are represented by Chris Bevilacqua, who has done more of these big regional sports network deals than anybody in the industry. The template is in place. MLB’s own internal committee is more than qualified to render a sensible valuation in two weeks.
The Lerners may not like that number. MASN and Angelos may not like it. Or they both might hate it. But there’s no reason to believe that MLB’s own committee on revenue fairness would come up with a bizarre valuation in an industry with a vested interest in healthy rights fees for regional sports networks.
Baseball and Selig need to push both parties in this “internal baseball dispute” — which, in fact, has broad public impact in D.C. — to reach a conclusion. Now.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.