Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Durke Thompson yesterday dismissed Comcast cable company's lawsuit against the Baltimore Orioles' television network, but the decision does not increase the likelihood that Comcast will begin airing Washington Nationals games on its cable channels.
Comcast has refused to carry any Nationals games, which are produced by the fledgling Mid-Atlantic Sports Network in a complicated arrangement with Major League Baseball, while its lawsuit works its way through the courts. A Comcast spokesman indicated yesterday that despite the ruling, Comcast would continue to fight MASN for control of the region's sports television market. Thompson's ruling allows Comcast to resubmit its case within 30 days if it has new information.
"We are disappointed in the judge's decision today," said David L. Cohen, Comcast executive vice president, in a statement. "He has invited us to amend the complaint, and we will promptly decide whether we will amend or appeal. We remain fully confident in our legal position and believe that it will be vindicated upon further review."
"I am definitely pleased with the court's decision," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said. "And now we can get back to the first order of business, which is to get all of the Nationals games to all of the Nationals fans."
Comcast sued the Orioles, Major League Baseball and MASN, the regional sports network jointly owned by the club and the league, last spring. It alleged that the Orioles and MLB were going to take the Orioles' television rights from Comcast and give them to MASN starting in 2007 without giving Comcast the right to match MASN's offer.
Comcast's lawsuit hung on its contention that its contract with the Orioles to carry the club's games on Comcast SportsNet included language that said it has the right to match any offer from "a third party." Thompson agreed with the Orioles' argument that MASN was not a third party and was a continuation of the Orioles' television network under a new name.
"The court feels constrained to interpret by the plain language of the agreement," Thompson said. "The court does not believe this set of facts that a sale, whether in whole or in part, is a triggering act of right to match."
"The court has made it clear this was a bogus lawsuit," said Arnold Weiner, an attorney for the Orioles. "Comcast's old excuse for not carrying the games has been swept aside, and Comcast should get on with making the Nationals games available."
Philadelphia-based Comcast is the largest cable company in the United States, with about 21 million subscribers. Cohen has said previously that there is room for only one regional sports network in the Baltimore-Washington region.
Baseball allowed the Orioles to keep control over the sport's television rights throughout the area in return for allowing the Nationals, formerly known as the Montreal Expos, to relocate to Washington. The Orioles pay the Nationals $20 million a year, with escalator clauses, for the right to produce and televise the team's games on MASN. But MASN needs to produce Orioles games -- Baltimore's contract with Comcast expires after the 2006 season -- in order to maximize MASN's profitability.
MASN has reached agreements with satellite provider DirecTV, cable company RSN and over-the-air Washington broadcasters WDCA-20 (UPN) and WTTG-5 (FOX) to air the games. But MASN needs agreements with big cable carriers such as Comcast, Cox and Time-Warner to carry the Nationals games in order to get wide distribution for the team and to give MASN the jump-start it needs to succeed.
"Our goal from the start has been to get the broadest possible distribution of the Nationals' games for the team's fans," said MLB President Robert DuPuy. "To the extent today's decision assists in getting the games carried, we are pleased with the result."