The television rights fee battle between the Orioles and Nationals is still generally on track for potential resolution — at least, in significant part. But the ever-expanding saga has grown so massive that it now comes with a range of complications. Its ultimate outcome will ultimately carry widespread implications, especially in the D.C.-Baltimore region.
Dan Connolly and Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic (subscription link) recently examined the underlying dispute and its more recent developments. It’s a worthwhile overview of a contentious issue that has turned an acronym for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network into the name of a monster with a mind of its own: The MASN Dispute.
To be clear, there really isn’t a new development on the legal or the negotiation front. The teams are still at an apparent standstill while they await the outcome of the latest round of litigation.
In terms of the convoluted legal roadmap, it’s best to focus on where things are now rather than looking back … to the extent that’s possible. Last summer, a court upheld an arbitration award in the Nationals’ favor. That judicial decision is presently being appealed. If it’s not upheld, we’re back to square one. If it is upheld, in theory, the initial dispute will in large part be resolved.
Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more to the situation. The Orioles have injected new legal claims and even launched a separate arbitration proceeding. The initial five-year TV rights fee period has already passed, so even as it remains under dispute there’s another one to consider. And as Connolly and Ghiroli write, there are other complications: tens of millions in legal fees and costs that continue to pile up; the need for the Nats to repay the league a $25MM loan; and a need to recalculate and distribute back revenue-sharing payments from the D.C. organization.
The aforementioned post documents the genesis of the dispute and its connection to the fortunes of these two organizations. The O’s benefited from a near-term cash injection as they controlled MASN and broadcast Nats games at a bargain rate. But the long-term concerns that the Baltimore organization raised at the outset seem largely to be coming to fruition. The Nationals are turning in a consistently competitive product and just captured the 2019 World Series, creating a rosy outlook for drawing new fans from the broader capital region. Meanwhile, the O’s are gasping for air after going all out to take advantage of those aforementioned competitive years, trotting out a low-grade roster and seeing franchise-low attendance figures.
The major question remains whether the two clubs can both thrive at the same time in the same geographic region. They both drew well in successful 2014 seasons, but has the balance shifted south? Connolly and Ghiroli discuss the recent downturn in the fortunes of the Orioles and concerns about the team’s profitability should the Nationals receive a full market rate for their TV rights. There’s no indication at the moment that the O’s are in financial trouble or can’t operate just fine in Baltimore, but the organization’s long-term outlook isn’t clear — particularly with the Nats’ draw creeping northward.
This surely isn’t a zero-sum game; the teams play in separate leagues and could in theory benefit from a friendly rivalry. Cooperation between these teams seems like the best path to mutual success. Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Nationals owner Ted Lerner have handed the operations of their respective franchises off to their sons, which presents some hypothetical opportunity to set aside personal misgivings. But we haven’t seen evwidence of a detente just yet. A return to competitive baseball from the Orioles would obviously help. Baltimore GM Mike Elias says he sees the D.C. organization as a model to follow in building back up the roster.
So … how to sum things up? There’s reason to expect some clear decision points from the courts that will bind both parties. And there are some conceivable pathways to a “more business-like way” of determining rights fees in the future (to reference the words of commissioner Rob Manfred). But it remains largely unclear precisely when and how these ever-broadening relationship problems will be resolved.