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DirecTV to Air Nationals Games

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005

The number of Washington Nationals games on television got a big boost yesterday when DirecTV announced it will air 135 regular season games throughout the Mid-Atlantic region starting with last night's game against the New York Mets at RFK Stadium.

The games will be included in DirecTV's basic broadcasting package, known as Total Choice, with no increase in the $41.99 cost.

Viewers inside the Washington region will be able to see 67 games on WDCA-20 and 68 games on Channel 626, which DirecTV has set aside exclusively for the Nationals games. Viewers outside the Washington market, but within the Mid-Atlantic region extending from Harrisburg, Pa., to Charlotte, can see all 135 games on Channel 626. The satellite service plans to air more than 150 Nationals games in 2006.

The games are being produced by Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which controls the Nationals' television rights and which signed the deal yesterday with DirecTV. Mid-Atlantic is jointly owned by the Baltimore Orioles and Major League Baseball, with the Orioles controlling 90 percent of the network.

"It's a wonderful night for Nationals fans," said MASN general manager and executive vice president Bob Whitelaw. "We now go from Harrisburg down to Charlotte. This is just the start. There will be more deals coming next week."

While DirecTV does not disclose the number of its subscribers on a regional basis, television experts estimate that there are more than 400,000 DirecTV households and businesses in the Baltimore-Washington region.

"We are delighted to finally offer Nationals games to a region and fans who are hungry for home-town Major League Baseball games," DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci said.

As part of the multi-year carriage agreement between DirecTV and MASN, beginning March 1, 2006, DirecTV will carry MASN 24 hours a day, seven days a week on Channel 626. MASN's service territory includes Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Washington and parts of North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Customers outside the MASN broadcast territory can access the Washington Nationals games through the MLB Extra Innings subscription package, which is available a la carte throughout the United States to more than 14 million DirecTV customers.

WDCA-20 and WTTG-5, both owned by Fox, are carrying about 76 regular season Nationals games throughout the Washington market. But MASN has not yet signed deals with the dozens of cable systems and other satellite providers that would give the Nationals the same regionwide exposure that the Orioles enjoy.

The Nationals' television situation is complicating baseball's attempts to sell the team, which is owned by the league's 29 owners.

Comcast Corp., which owns its own regional sports network known as Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, last week filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court to prevent the Orioles from jumping to MASN after the team's contract with Comcast expires following the 2006 season. Comcast has charged the Orioles with breach of contract by not allowing Comcast to make a matching offer before the Orioles committed to MASN.

Some bidders on the Nationals have said that they are hesitant to make an offer for the team without knowing what is going to happen with MASN. If Comcast prevails and is able to keep the Orioles off MASN, the network would find it difficult to attract enough subscribers to make it profitable.

Baseball has paid $75 million to the Orioles for a 10 percent stake in MASN, which will grow to 33 percent over the next 28 years, according to sources familiar with the deal. The league likely will include its share of MASN in the sale of the Nationals, but bidders will have to decide how much the interest in MASN is worth.

One source who asked not to be identified because of the sale process described the $75 million as an "industry expense intended to pay for a benefit for the Nationals, which should increase the value of the team."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company