Kevin Cohan has been getting two very unusual phone pitches every day for the past week. One call to the managing partner of the Jim Coleman chain of auto dealerships comes from Comcast SportsNet, telling Cohan his company should be prepared to advertise on its new regional sports network that will include Washington Nationals baseball games.
The other phone call is from the Baltimore Orioles, telling Cohan that they are going to own the regional sports network that carries the Nationals' games and that Cohan needs to buy the commercials through them.
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The dueling sales pitches are an indication of the fierce negotiations being played out over the last week between Major League Baseball and Orioles owner Peter Angelos. With the season opening Monday, the two sides were still locked in talks at baseball headquarters in New York last night, with an agreement imminent but not yet signed, according to sources.
Baseball President Robert A. DuPuy, who is leading the negotiations for the league, could not be reached to comment last night. Alan Rifkin, an attorney for Angelos, said the negotiations were progressing.
"We continue to work toward a resolution," Rifkin said. "There are still some matters to be resolved. I anticipate we will continue to talk this evening."
That leaves Cohan with no place to go with his Nationals television commercial.
"I am dead in the middle of it," Cohan said. "We have cut a commercial called 'Keys to the Game' for the Nationals, not even knowing who is going to broadcast it. I set up a budget and I am ready to go. We just need to know when and who we are signing with."
Angelos and baseball have been fighting over the television broadcast rights to the region since MLB decided to move the Nationals here from Montreal and approached Angelos about a financial package that would compensate him for the effect of a team playing about 40 miles away.
The two sides long ago agreed that baseball would guarantee that the Orioles would fetch a minimum of $365 million if Angelos decided to sell, but the television package has been particularly nettlesome. Angelos acquired the broadcast rights to the Baltimore-Washington region when he bought the Orioles for $173 million in 1993, and he wants to maintain control over those rights by forming a regional sports network, which would include the Nationals and, possibly, Comcast SportsNet.
Baseball is reluctant to allow Angelos majority control over a broadcast entity that would also control the Nationals, and the two sides have been in intense negotiations over the last week on how to construct a regional sports network that protects the business interests of both teams.
Baseball wants to protect the value of the Nationals, which the league owns and is trying to sell. But a bad TV deal could mean a lower selling price. Television revenue is a key component to a team's financial success, and the league is hoping to sell the Nationals for at least $350 million. Baseball's 29 owners bought the Nationals, then known as the Expos, from Jeffrey Loria for $120 million in February 2002.
The fact that Cohan is being approached by both Comcast and Orioles' salesmen indicates that control of the proposed regional sports network remains in doubt.
"I have talked to people with the Orioles who said am I ready for them to come down and they are going to manage it," Cohan said. "And then Comcast calls me and says we are going to manage it. My Comcast rep calls me and says, 'No, we finalized it and haven't had a press conference yet.' The Orioles say, 'No, we are going to own the regional sports network.' Every day they call me with a different story."
Broadcasting experts said the Nationals' potential for being a television hit have been hurt by delays in getting a deal, but said the franchise can recover quickly if the pieces fall into place before the opener in Philadelphia next Monday.
"This is a very short period of time to sell advertising space," said Barry Frank, a vice chairman in the television division of IMG, who has worked on at least eight local television deals for professional sports teams. "Most people have a budget and they don't wait until the last minute to buy advertising time. Maybe there is some left, but not as much as there would have been a couple of months ago."
The Nationals have also lost valuable promotional time by not having the team's preseason games on television, which could also serve as a promotion for the regular season. But the experts said that as long as the team is able to get on the air starting Opening Day, its television presence is unlikely to suffer.
"The anticipation is so great that I think they will do fine," said sports television consultant Mike Trager. "They lost promotion time for sure and a considerable amount of it. During spring training was a time to promote the team. I think that is a short-term loss. I don't see it having any great effect in the long run on ratings."