WASHINGTON'S first Opening Day in 34 years is less than a month away, and still the city's new baseball team has no deal for television broadcasts of its games. The main obstacle, as throughout much of the struggle to bring the former Montreal Expos to town, is the stubborn resistance of Peter G. Angelos, majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles. Mr. Angelos wants compensation for losses he believes his club will suffer from the presence of competition in Washington, and he seems to think that he can get much of what he wants from a favorable division of the region's baseball TV revenue.
The situation is not simple, and the stakes are high. Washington's team, the Nationals, is owned by Major League Baseball, which has a considerable interest in getting the best price it can from the people who will be bidding on the franchise when it goes on sale. Any team that has had its prospective TV money greatly reduced by an uneven revenue-sharing arrangement such as the one Mr. Angelos appears to be seeking -- and we are talking about sums that would go a long way toward financing a major league payroll -- would be worth a lot less at sale. One possible scenario has Mr. Angelos and the Orioles getting the lion's share of money from a joint regional network that would televise both teams -- regardless of whether the more populous Washington area and Nationals fans were the primary source of that money. Another possibility would be for the Orioles and Nationals to make their own separate deals with broadcasters. The complication here is that Mr. Angelos appears to have a far more expansive view than do his baseball peers of how large a viewing area should be reserved for the Orioles, and thus kept off-limits to the Nationals.
Baseball needs to get this business settled quickly, and in doing so keep in mind that imposing a bad TV deal on the new team on the block would also be setting a bad and very damaging precedent for the league. Any time a future franchise wanted to move, the owner or owners facing new competition in their region would feel it was their right to demand a lopsided division of the "regional" TV revenue. And of course any new or transferred team would be hobbled by this sort of long-term restriction on its income right when it was under the most financial pressure.
If Mr. Angelos is entitled to compensation, it needs to come in some other way, perhaps as a one-time payment from all of baseball. Baseball's leaders should not be cowed by Mr. Angelos's legendary litigiousness. They are supposed to act in the best interests of the game, which in this case would be served by giving people throughout the huge and prosperous Baltimore-Washington region a chance to watch either or both of their teams on television. It could just be that everybody will win.