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MLB Keeps Working On TV Deal for Nats

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page D09

MLB has narrowed its options for televising the Washington Nationals games locally, but has not finalized a broadcast deal because it has yet to work out an agreement with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to compensate his franchise for putting a team in the District, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The league has hired Steve Greenberg, a managing director at the investment banking firm of Allen & Co., to work out the details of a television deal for the Nationals. Greenberg declined to comment.

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One option appears to be the creation of a regional sports network partnership between baseball and either Fox SportsNet or Comcast SportsNet, and which could also include the Orioles, under which all three entities -- the Nationals, the Orioles and the broadcaster -- would share profits and ownership.

The second option, according to sources, would be the more conventional approach of selling the Nationals' broadcast rights for a set fee to either Comcast or Fox. Comcast issued a statement recently saying, "We look forward to working with all parties involved to reach a positive outcome regarding television broadcast rights."

A spokesman for Fox Sports yesterday declined to comment.

A third option, which sources said is not likely, calls for baseball to form its own Washington regional sports network. Sources said baseball would rather partner with a broadcaster or cable company in order to spread the risk.

Some individuals interested in purchasing the team are concerned about Angelos's claim over the television rights. The Nationals' new owners would need revenue from Washington area television rights to pay for a competitive team.

Baseball would like to reach an agreement with the Orioles so the league can proceed with the sale of the Nationals, which baseball hopes will fetch at least $300 million. The league's 29 owners purchased the team, then located in Montreal, from then-owner Jeffrey Loria for $120 million in February 2002.

About six bidders have placed $100,000 deposits along with applications to purchase the team, according to baseball. Some bidders have been told that they may start to review the Nationals' financial data by the end of January, although no specific dates appear to have been set.

Before a television deal can be struck, baseball will have to determine the Nationals' television territory and how close to Baltimore that territory will extend, according to sources. Baseball grants certain geographic regions around teams as "exclusive" broadcast rights for that team only, while outer regions are often termed "shared." Angelos and baseball appear to disagree on how far the Orioles' exclusive area extends.

For example, the league doesn't want New York Yankees games regularly televised in Philadelphia, where it could hurt the Phillies. Nor does it allow the Boston Red Sox to consider New York City part of its exclusive region. But there are certain parts of Connecticut where the broadcasting overlaps and both Red Sox as well as Yankees and New York Mets games are available.

Angelos has emphasized to MLB that the cable TV rights he would be obliged to share with the Nationals have been his team's property, which came with the purchase of the franchise in 1993 for $173 million.

Baseball maintains it never gave such a guarantee, according to sources.

Angelos and Commissioner Bud Selig met this week at the owners meetings in Arizona, but the two sides still appear to be far apart in their negotiations on a financial package designed to offset the impact that the Washington Nationals will have on the franchise.

"There was a cordial and constructive meeting and we intend to meet again next week in Milwaukee," Angelos said yesterday. The meeting between Selig and Angelos, which was also attended by Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss and H. Russell Smouse, an attorney in Angelos's law firm, was suggested by MLB President Robert DuPuy. DuPuy has been MLB's point man in its negotiations with Angelos.

"All of the principals were assembled in Arizona for the owners meetings, which gave us an opportunity to jointly brief the commissioner on the negotiations and to continue our discussions," DuPuy said. "We agreed to meet again in Milwaukee shortly at a date to be determined subject to everyone's schedules. The meeting was cordial and constructive."

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