The sorry state of the Washington Nationals' TV rights is one of the most bizarre tales in modern sports history.
Earlier this year Major League Baseball gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos -- a steadfast opponent of the return of Major League Baseball to Washington -- the TV rights to Nationals games at the fire-sale price of $21 million. No other professional team in the United States has had its TV rights transferred to a competitor.
TV rights are the second-largest revenue generator for any professional team. Some estimates put the market value of the Nats' TV rights at $750 million. The depression of the Nationals' value through the discounted sale of its TV rights -- even before the team finds a local owner -- may hamstring the team's financial muscle for many years while shifting revenue to a competitor. It also could undercut the substantial investment taxpayers are being asked to make in a new baseball stadium.
Angelos has the power to decide how many Nats games to televise and to whom, and he is exercising this power by preventing Nats fans in Howard County and other areas between Washington and Baltimore from seeing Nationals games on TV.
But that is only part of the tangled web. Angelos created a regional sports network called the Mid Atlantic Sports Network to compete with the likes of ESPN and Comcast Sports Net. The problem is that he already has a deal with Comcast to broadcast the Orioles' games.
Comcast is the largest cable operator in the region, and it is critical that it carry the Nats' games. Comcast says that the Mid Atlantic Sports Network exists only because Angelos is in breach of his contract with Comcast and that it will not air his network. Angelos disagrees and says that the contract allows him to start his own sports network.
This dispute is now in the courts, leaving the rest of us stranded on base in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Like most fans, I don't have any interest in the merits on either side in this case. I just want to see every Nats game aired to as wide an audience as possible. This being said, however, I believe that Washington fans should root for an Angelos loss in this case, and here's why.
Because the Angelos network cannot survive without the TV rights to both the Nationals and the Orioles, the outcome of the Comcast lawsuit is crucial. If Angelos loses, the Nats' TV rights are likely to revert to the team, which then could license those rights just the way every other team does -- and probably for tens of millions more than Angelos is paying. Cable carriers would have no reason not to televise every game to a much wider geographic audience.
Under this scenario, the team, the fans and the taxpayers would win, and our local TV ownership rights would be returned to their rightful place.
-- Harold Brazil
is a former member of the D.C. Council.