The Baltimore Orioles yesterday asked the Federal Communications Commission to order Comcast cable company to begin carrying Washington Nationals games immediately and break a deadlock that has kept millions of fans in the Mid-Atlantic region from seeing Nationals games on television.
"We hope the commission will appreciate the urgency for Nationals fans of having these games available as quickly as possible," said attorney David C. Frederick of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, who is representing the Orioles. "We want the games on now and the payment or conditions can be worked out later."
The move by the Orioles, who control baseball's rights to the entire Baltimore-Washington television market through the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, escalates the war between the Baltimore club and Comcast over who will dominate cable television sports in the region.
Comcast fired back, saying MASN, which is co-owned by the Orioles and Major League Baseball, is unlawfully trying to take the rights to televise the Orioles from Comcast SportsNet, Comcast's regional network. Comcast also said it is willing to pay the Nationals more than the $20 million that MASN is paying for the team's TV rights.
"We have always expressed an interest in carrying Nationals games," said D'Arcy Rudnay, vice president of corporate communications for Comcast. "We are not carrying MASN games because the network was created as a result of breach of contract with CSN. MASN is now making the argument that we should be forced to carry a network that was created as a result of breach of contract with us. What MASN really wants is a permission slip to walk away from its contracts."
Rudnay would not say how much money Comcast is willing to pay for the rights to televise the Nationals, but Executive Vice President David L. Cohen said in an e-mail that "in the discussions between Major League Baseball and Comcast SportsNet, more money was offered by Comcast to Major League Baseball for the Nationals cable television rights than what is reportedly being paid by MASN."
Baseball officials did not respond to telephone messages and e-mails seeking comment.
The FCC complaint alleges that Comcast is refusing to carry Nationals games "unless it receives a financial interest in the regional sports network that carries those games."
The Orioles' filing says Steve Greenberg of the Allen & Company investment firm acted as an agent for Comcast. Greenberg advised the Orioles and baseball to give Comcast equity in a regional sports network, while at the same time Allen & Company was involved in Comcast's acquisition of Adelphia cable systems, according to the complaint.
"It was apparent to the Orioles that Greenberg was acting as the agent of Comcast," according to the filing. However, Allen & Company did not represent Comcast; it handled the sale of Adelphia's cable assets, according to a source at Allen & Company.
Greenberg dismissed the Orioles' assertions. "These allegations regarding Allen and Company are as ridiculous as they are factually inaccurate," Greenberg said.
A spokesman for Comcast said Greenberg did not represent the cable company in any discussions with MLB, the Nationals or the Orioles.
Comcast is the largest cable provider in the United States with 22 million subscribers as well as the dominant provider in the Baltimore-Washington region, servicing about two-thirds of the households. Comcast sued the Orioles and MLB two months ago in Montgomery County Circuit Court over the fledgling MASN, which Comcast views as a threat to Comcast SportsNet.
Baseball allowed MASN to maintain control over the baseball television rights to the Washington-Baltimore region to offset the financial impact of putting the Nationals, formerly known as the Montreal Expos, in Washington. Baseball bought 10 percent of MASN, with that share increasing to around 33 percent over the next three decades. The Orioles own the rest.
MASN has been scrambling to get the Nationals games distributed throughout the region, with varying results. Comcast does not carry MASN-produced Nationals games; however, it does carry Nationals games that are televised on UPN's WDCA-20 and beginning in July, Fox's WTTG-5. It also carries Nationals games on ESPN. Satellite provider DirecTV and RCN cable also carry MASN-produced Nationals games, as well as the over-the-air stations, but without Comcast, Cox and other big companies, MASN will have a difficult time getting wide distribution for the Nationals.