By Arshad Mohammed and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 5, 2006
Washington Nationals fans in the Baltimore-Washington region will be able to watch the Major League Baseball team's games on Comcast as soon as Sept. 1 after the sports network that carries most of the games settled its bitter 15-month dispute yesterday with the cable company.
Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed by Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the Nationals' home network, or by Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable company and the dominant provider in the Washington region.
Under the deal, 1.6 million Comcast subscribers in the Baltimore-Washington corridor will be able to view the games starting in September, while another 600,000 people in more distant parts of Western Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania will get access to the games over the next two years.
"Bravo. It's about time. This is great news for the fans who have welcomed the Nationals to DC and want to watch [Alfonso] Soriano on TV as he bangs in those runs," District Mayor Anthony A. Williams said in a statement.
Mid-Atlantic said Comcast would start airing the baseball games in most of the region on Sept. 1.
But a person close to Comcast said the date might slip because the company has to give notice to channels it bumps to make space for Mid-Atlantic. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of such contracts.
The Nationals immediately applauded the agreement, which will dramatically increase their television exposure.
"From the very first day our group was named as the owners, we said getting all of our games to all of our fans was the highest priority. This is a very, very positive development in that regard," said Stan Kasten, the team's president.
The agreement appeared to be a major victory for Mid-Atlantic, which, in addition to getting Comcast to carry the network in most of the region, also got it to agree to drop its related lawsuit over the TV rights to the Baltimore Orioles, Mid-Atlantic said.
"This is great news for sports fans throughout the mid-Atlantic region," Peter Angelos, managing partner of the Orioles and majority owner of Mid-Atlantic, said in a statement. "We are pleased to have reached this agreement with Comcast, which will allow both the Nationals and the Orioles to maximize their exposure throughout the territory."
"Comcast is pleased to have reached an agreement with MASN. We've always wanted to bring the Nationals to Comcast customers," Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen said in a statement.
For all the kind words, the two sides had fought over the issue in and out of court for more than a year.
The roots of the dispute go back to the arrangements made for the Nationals' TV rights when the team was brought to Washington. The Orioles were given TV rights to the Washington area by Major League Baseball in 1981. When the Nationals came to Washington, the Orioles agreed to share the territory and dropped their opposition to the franchise's relocation in return for control of local television broadcasts of the new team's games.
Comcast's Cohen has called the agreement to compensate the Orioles the "original sin" of the current disagreement.
Orioles games, which are shown on Comcast SportsNet, will move to Mid-Atlantic next season. Comcast has sued Mid-Atlantic and the Orioles in Maryland Circuit Court to prevent that move. The case has been thrown out twice and is under appeal. In the meantime, Comcast refused to air Nationals games.
That case will be dropped, as will a complaint that Mid-Atlantic had filed against Comcast with the Federal Communications Commission, which referees such media disputes.
While the two sides have been under pressure from politicians and fans for months, what appears to have triggered the deal was a deadline set by the FCC. In July, the agency gave Mid-Atlantic the right to send the dispute to an arbitrator or administrative judge. The sports network had until yesterday to decide which route to take.
"It's always helpful to give parties deadlines," said FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, who prodded the agency to act on the dispute.
Robert White, a spokesman for Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who had publicly pressured the two sides to come to an agreement, caught the mood of many fans when he said: "We are pleased that they have come to some resolution. We only wish it had happened sooner."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.