NEW YORK – Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday strongly rebuked the Baltimore Orioles’ position in the club’s revenue dispute with the Washington Nationals, saying the Orioles have “engaged in a pattern of conduct” that ignores a longstanding agreement by which the Nationals were to gain rights fees from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the Orioles-owned broadcaster that carries the games of both clubs.
Speaking at the conclusion of the quarterly owners’ meetings at MLB headquarters, Manfred acknowledged that the disagreement – which the Nationals argue is limiting their rightful revenues and therefore impeding their ability to, among other things, pursue marquee free agents – is “driven by litigation postures at this time” because the Orioles, Nationals and MLB are appealing a November decision by a New York Supreme Court judge that dismissed a decision by an MLB panel to award higher rights fees to the Nationals.
But Manfred argued, more stridently than he has in the past, that the basics of the deal negotiated in 2004 – when MLB approved the Montreal Expos’ move to Washington – should still apply today, and that MLB’s Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee should calibrate the fees the Orioles pay to the Nationals. MASN is currently withholding those funds.
“It is important to bear in mind the fundamentals,” Manfred said. “The fundamentals are that the Orioles agreed that the RSDC would set the rights fees for MASN and the Orioles every five years. The Orioles have engaged in a pattern of conduct designed to avoid that agreement being effectuated.”
In court filings, the Nationals have sought more than $100 million annually in rights fees from the network. The Orioles and MASN argued they should give $35 million. The RSDC figure was approximately $55 million to $60 million.
In the past, Manfred has publicly expressed optimism that the situation would be resolved.
MASN, meanwhile, issued a statement saying Manfred’s statement “ignores the fundamentals of the case.” MASN pointed out that a New York court sided with the Orioles because of MLB’s “pervasive conflicts of interest,” and that “MASN and the Orioles never agreed to allow the RSDC to set the telecast rights fees at its sole discretion,” but rather agreed that the RSDC must use a method for determining fees that the league had used for years.
“Regrettably, the Commissioner’s statement again makes it clear that MASN cannot receive a fair, objective and impartial hearing before MLB or the RSDC on these matters,” the statement concluded.
The commissioner also addressed a number of other topics during a 20-minute briefing with media that closed the owners’ meetings.
* Manfred said the league’s chief lawyer, Dan Halem, has held a dozen negotiating sessions with his counterparts at the players’ union in an effort to reach agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. “I am a labor optimist by nature,” he said, and he indicated the schedule was in line with reaching a deal before the current pact expires in December.
* Manfred said he is open to looking at baseball’s drug-testing policy after a recent uptick in suspensions resulting from positive tests – eight already this year, already up from seven a year ago and just two in 2014. “One of the areas you can improve is: the science gets better,” he said.
* Manfred said the replay system, which is being used to review more calls, will “evolve,” and that the league is being vigilant in monitoring the kinds of calls that are being reviewed and the time it takes to review them.
* To that end, he said his office has had constant communication with players about remaining focused on the pace of play initiatives that helped shorten game times in 2015. Through Wednesday, nine-inning games were averaging two hours, 59 minutes and 54 seconds – up more than six minutes from the same number of nine-inning games a year ago. “We’re not happy with the early returns in bulk this year, and we’ve made some ongoing efforts to try to regain that focus,” Manfred said.
* After Fredi Gonzalez’s firing in Atlanta left the majors with no Latino managers, Manfred acknowledged that getting a diverse base of field managers is “a really difficult issue for us,” but said the clubs had a long discussion about diversity – both in race and gender – during their general meeting.