Hopes that Washington Nationals games will soon have widespread exposure on local cable television suffered a major blow yesterday when Comcast SportsNet filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball, the Baltimore Orioles and their fledgling Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.
Comcast said it will not televise Nationals games on its cable system throughout the Baltimore-Washington region while the suit is being litigated, other than the 76 or so games already scheduled on WDCA-20 (UPN) and nationally televised games on ESPN and Fox. The Philadelphia-based cable company serves 1.65 million subscribers in the Baltimore-Washington region.
The suit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, asks that the Orioles be prevented from moving their games from Comcast SportsNet to MASN at the end of the club's current television contract in 2006 without giving the network a chance to match the deal, a right Comcast says is included in the contract. Comcast SportsNet carries about 100 Orioles games per season; MASN would carry Nationals games this season and next and add the Orioles in 2006.
"We have serious questions about Comcast SportsNet's legal rights," said Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen. "In addition, we are concerned about the impact on our customers of a $2 to $3 a month 'Angelos tax' that would be imposed as a result of MASN's creation. Until these issues are resolved, Comcast will continue to carry the Nationals' broadcast schedule that is being made available in the market."
Cohen said the "Angelos tax," referring to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, is the amount MASN wants to charge Comcast for carrying the network on one of its channels.
The Orioles games are crucial to MASN. Without eventually carrying both the Orioles and Nationals, MASN likely would not have enough subscribers to make the venture profitable or enough original programming to supply an around-the-clock regional sports network. That means MASN must prevail in the lawsuit by Comcast or face extinction, which has happened to regional sports networks started by the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Cohen suggested that there isn't room for another regional sports network in the Baltimore-Washington region.
"I don't think there's any secret that we think in most sports markets in the country, that it's more efficient and better for the customer to have a single regional sports network," Cohen said.
MASN Executive Vice President Bob Whitelaw called Cohen's reference to the Angelos tax "baseless and inflammatory."
"We cannot determine what Comcast charges its customers," Whitelaw said, adding that the real purpose of the lawsuit was for Comcast to extract an ownership interest in MASN.
"Comcast has been offered the opportunity to distribute the Nationals' games," Whitelaw said. "Comcast has not accepted that offer but has outrageously demanded an ownership interest in MASN and has responded to our offer by filing a lawsuit against the Orioles, purposely designed to inflame the Washington fans. That unfounded suit filed today will not deter MASN in its efforts to present the Nationals' games. It should not be forgotten that MASN will pay the Nationals $20 million in rights fees for this season."
This isn't the first time that a professional sports team has been kept off the air because of a dispute with a cable company. The New York Yankees stopped selling cable rights to MSG cable network two years ago and established their own network -- YES, for Yankees Entertainment & Sports -- but protracted negotiations with local provider Cablevision kept the Yankees off the air in 3 million homes in New York and New Jersey. The Yankees allocated a reported $58 million to the team treasury as an annual rights fee last year.
Other regional sports networks have produced mixed results, with some huge successes, such as the Boston-based New England Sports Network, which reaches nearly 3.7 million homes in six states and carries more than 100 Red Sox games and more than 70 Boston Bruins games each season.
However, in Minnesota last year the Twins' owners started a regional sports network, called Victory One Sports, but Time Warner and other cable operators refused to carry it. The cable companies claimed that the Twins were charging too much, dooming the venture and keeping Twins games off the air for a time last spring, angering fans. The Twins pulled the plug on the nascent network and made a deal with Fox's regional sports network in May.
So far, WDCA and the Washington Fox affiliate, WTTG-5, have committed to carry about half of the 162 Nationals games this season in traditional, over-the-air broadcasts. MASN is in negotiations with satellite broadcaster DirecTV, which could boost the number of televised games to 140 and expand the Nationals' television audience by more than 400,000 subscribers. But television sources said the Orioles games were pulled off the bargaining table with DirecTV on Wednesday night, preventing the satellite provider and MASN from reaching a deal.
A DirecTV spokesman said negotiations continue.
MLB President Robert DuPuy said in an e-mail yesterday that the league, which is a 10 percent partner in MASN, had not had a chance to review the lawsuit, but DuPuy said he was "obviously disappointed."
"There have been discussions among Comcast, the Orioles and MASN," DuPuy said in the e-mail. "While we are hopeful those discussions can lead to a quick resolution of the issues among them, nothing in the litigation has any impact on the current television schedule of the Nationals or rights fees being paid to the Nationals."
MASN is a regional sports network that is 90 percent owned by the Orioles, 10 percent by Major League Baseball. Baseball gave the Orioles majority control as a way to compensate the Baltimore club for moving the Nationals into its television territory. The territory includes Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Washington, the District, and parts of North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Baseball's share will increase to a third of the network over the next three decades.