Maryland Athletic Director Andy Geiger describes the current negotiations over the radio rights to broadcasting his school's football and basketball games as "a little like watching a tennis ball go back and forth over the net."

At the moment, Geiger is in the umpire's chair as WMAL Radio serves and volleys with the university's bargaining agent, Jefferson-Pilot of Charlotte, N.C., over a new contract. WMAL has been Maryland's flagship for 22 years, but that relationship is now in jeopardy because the station is tired of losing money on the deal.

JP Sports is in the second of a five-year contract with Maryland negotiated by Geiger's predecessor, Lew Perkins. The firm will pay Maryland $130,000 this year for those radio rights, then will choose -- with significant input from Geiger -- a flagship to anchor a network that numbered 16 affiliates this year. WMAL's contract with the school runs out after this basketball season, and WBAL in Baltimore has become a serious bidder to take over as the flagship.

Geiger says he really can't say much about the negotations. He will offer that WMAL has done a fine job over the years, that the station has a powerful signal, is identified as the sports voice of Washington and provides a widely recognized announcer in Johnny Holliday.

WBAL, he says, also has pluses. "We have tens of thousands of alumni in the state and in the city of Baltimore," he said. "We need a strong presence in Baltimore; that is terribly important to us as well."

Pardon the provincialism, but a Washington flagship makes more sense. It's a larger, richer market. The university always has sold recruits on the advantages of playing in the nation's capital. And the school has prided itself on being an integral part of the Washington community. There's also a matter of loyalty. WMAL stuck with the university through some trying times after the death of Len Bias. Now, just when the athletic department seems to be coming out of the tailspin, how can it abandon a station that has stayed the course?

Very easily. It's called the big business of college sports, where bottom lines determine most decisions.

"Right now, the bullets are flying," Geiger said. "It's not the friendliest thing I've seen, which I feel badly about. It will calm down. I really have no idea which way it will go. I think {JP Sports and himself} will make the decision together, but I won't make a final call that jeopardizes the finances with our partner."

The people at WMAL say they want a deal structured so it can make a reasonable profit. Under the current contract, WMAL often finds itself trying to sell local advertising on Maryland broadcasts to many of the same people JP Sports is wooing to buy time on the Maryland network. "They both have inventory to sell," Geiger said, "and that makes them partners and competitors at the same time. It is a unique way of doing it."

And rather ridiculous as well. At Stanford, Geiger always negotiated his own radio deals in a very competitive market, without a middleman. He won't say so specifically because he has a contract to honor, but clearly Geiger could have done this himself, with no interference from a company based outside his own market.

Geiger also is adamant in insisting that wherever the rights go, he wants Holliday to continue his 12-year relationship as the voice of Maryland athletics. WMAL, meanwhile, says that if the station is not the flagship, and if another Washington station happens to carry Maryland games, it does not want Holliday doing the play-by-play.

Holliday, who is not under contract to WMAL, now finds himself in a pleasant position of some strength. Geiger wants him, and so does WMAL General Manager Tom Bresnahan, who said this week that "we are very happy with Johnny, and we very much want to keep him."

Holliday is a capable play-by-play man typical of so many of his colleagues in the collegiate ranks who spend lifetimes chronicling the exploits of the local team. He's no rising superstar like Orioles announcer Jon Miller, but clearly he's no worse than network television fixtures like Tim Brant and Keith Jackson. During the football season he's also saddled with a dreadful color man, Tom Matte, an Ohio State grad who still refers to Maryland as "we."

Holliday admittedly offers a home-team bias, though he insists "if a kid on the other team makes a great play, you call it that way. . . . I'm not going to rip an 18- or 19-year-old kid because they make a mistake. And you do want to see {the Terrapins} win; any home team broadcaster is like that. . . . As far as every foul or penalty against Maryland being a bad call, I don't believe in that. You lose your credibility. I try and play it straight."

He said he'd like to continue his relationship with Maryland, but preferred not to comment on the negotiations. Sources at the station say he's also made it known to WMAL management that he has patiently bided his time, but covets Frank Herzog's play-by-play assignment on the station's Redskins games.

Bresnahan and Holliday both declined to comment on that subject, but the advantages for the station of having Holliday do Redskins games seem obvious. Herzog works for WJLA-TV full-time, not WMAL. Holliday is a WMAL man, and the station would benefit from his increased visibility, as well as his presence at home games and on the road.

If WMAL should lose Maryland sports, giving Holliday a shot at the Redskins would keep them from losing him as well. Despite the popularity of the Herzog-Sonny Jurgensen-Sam Huff Redskins team, station insiders say a Holliday-Redskins scenario is not out of the realm of possibility, depending on what happens with the Maryland contract.

The ball is now in the Terrapins' court, and Andy Geiger's ruling from the chair may have widespread ramifications.