As the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles await a New York Supreme Court judge’s written decision in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network dispute, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made comments Thursday that irked MASN’s attorneys. Responding to reporters in New York at the quarterly owners meetings, Manfred said, “I think the agreement’s clear in MASN;” the MLB panel “was empowered to set rights fees;” and “sooner or later, MASN is going to be required to pay those rights fees” to the Nationals.
On Friday, Thomas Hall, an attorney for MASN, which is majority owned and operated by the Baltimore Orioles, sent a letter to Judge Lawrence Marks, unhappy about Manfred’s comments. Hall referred to Manfred’s statements as “shocking” and “highly prejudicial and demonstrate that MASN cannot receive a fair and impartial rehearing of the telecast rights fees dispute in a forum controlled by MLB.”
Both sides in the dispute — MASN and the Orioles against MLB and the Nationals — made their final arguments before Marks on Monday in New York. There is no timetable on Marks’s announcement. The judge will decide whether to vacate the MLB panel’s decision that awarded the Nationals higher television rights fees.
“By his own statements, Mr. Manfred has shed all semblance of impartiality and removed all doubt that this dispute must either be kept by the Court for resolution on the merits or sent to an arbitration panel independent of Major League Baseball (“MLB”) if the Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee (“RSDC”) Award is vacated,” Hall wrote in the letter.
MASN has paid the Nationals rights fees based on disputed methodology but not the nearly $20 million more a year in rights fees ordered by a MLB panel’s decision last summer.
MASN and the Orioles have argued in past court hearings that the process was tainted, by the involvement of Manfred and a law firm connected to several parties on the panel; that the league had a vested interest because of a $25 million payment it made to the Nationals; and that the methodology the panel used to arrive at the rights fees was flawed. MASN and the Orioles have argued that Marks should decide the case himself or send the dispute to an outside arbitration panel — but not back to another MLB panel.
“As Mr. Manfred confirmed by his own statements [Thursday] afternoon, it would be totally unrealistic to expect that any MLB proceeding could take place free of the views, impressions and conclusions formed in a prior proceeding, which was rife with evident partiality,” Hall wrote in Friday’s letter.
The Nationals and MLB, however, have countered in past court hearings the MASN and the Orioles were aware of the process and are stalling now; that there was no bias; and Manfred, as Bud Selig’s former right-hand man, simply facilitated the panel but didn’t influence the outcome. The Nationals and MLB want Marks to uphold the MLB panel’s decision to award the Nationals more in rights fees.
The MLB panel ruling from last summer awarded the Nationals nearly $300 million in TV rights fees during the 2012-2016 “reset” period. The entire conflict between the Nationals and MASN has caused a headache for MLB, which didn’t want legal action on the matter because of the publicity. The league even facilitated negotiations to sell off MASN. The Nationals and MASN have been squabbling over TV rights fees since 2012, when the reset period first started.