Hanging over the past seven months of Nationals business has been the Lerner family’s efforts to find a buyer for the franchise. Ted Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports & Entertainment owns the NBA’s Wizards, NHL’s Capitals and WNBA’s Mystics, had emerged as the favorite in those discussions in recent weeks.
While that might still be the case, the Talk Nats blog reported over the weekend the sides remain divided on a price point. Talk Nats suggests there’s some pessimism about the possibility of Leonsis finalizing a purchase of the franchise imminently, if at all. To be clear, there’s no suggestion the Lerners and Leonsis are on the verge of calling off talks, but it seems there’s still a notable gap to bridge in negotiations.
The primary stumbling block, as has been the case throughout the sale process, seems to be the franchise’s uncertain TV rights outlook. As part of the relocation efforts to move the franchise from Montreal to Washington nearly two decades ago, MLB (which owned the Expos/Nationals at the time) agreed to tie its local broadcasting rights to the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. MASN is jointly owned by the Nats and Orioles, but the Orioles’ ownership share is roughly 77% while the Nats own around 23%. That agreement, a condition of the franchise’s relocation into the Orioles’ geographic territorial rights, caps the Nationals’ TV revenue by making it impermissible for them to sell broadcasting rights to a regional sports network.
Leonsis owns NBC Sports Washington and would almost certainly prefer to broadcast Nationals games on that network if he took control of the franchise. Doing so would require negotiating a way out of the MASN contract with the Orioles, though, and it’s not clear whether the Baltimore organization has any interest in doing so. MLB has gotten involved in an attempt to broker a settlement between the franchises, but there’s no indication they’ve made progress to this point.
Hanging over the potential negotiations is an acrimonious past between the Orioles and Nats that hasn’t been resolved. Disputes about the Nationals’ share of TV rights led to litigation that has been pending for nearly a decade. In 2019, an arbitrator ruled the network owed the Nationals around $105MM in unpaid rights fees. MASN appealed that decision, and the appeal has still yet to get on the docket for the New York Court of Appeals.
While Leonsis purchasing the franchise still seems well within the range of possibilities, it doesn’t appear a resolution is coming in the near future. The Washington Post wrote in August the organization was hopeful of completing the sales process by November. That certainly isn’t going to happen, and it seems an open question whether a solution will be known by the time the calendar turns to 2023. It’s hardly an ideal situation for general manager Mike Rizzo and his staff to construct their roster this offseason, although the Nats look likely to be relatively quiet regardless after firmly committing to a rebuild with the Juan Soto trade over the summer.