- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Washington Nationals’ TV future moved a significant step closer to clarity yesterday despite the continued lack of a signed and announced compensation agreement between the Baltimore Orioles and Major League Baseball.

According to several industry sources, a framework is in place to put about 75 Nationals games this season over the air, mostly on WDCA-TV (Channel 20), with a handful going to its sister, Fox-owned station WTTG-TV (Channel 5). The remaining block of games, except for those held back for national broadcast, would air on a new regional sports network that is at the center of the long-running talks between MLB executives and Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

The new network, carrying the provisional name of Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), likely would be under the majority control of the Orioles and act as the primary TV home of both clubs. The network also would oversee the distribution of both teams’ games through cable and satellite carriers and strike deals with local, over-the-air TV stations like the Nationals’ impending agreement with WDCA and WTTG.

The Nationals would receive a rights fee from the regional sports network in the tentative pact, estimated at $20million to $30million a year, forming the team’s second-largest single revenue source. An equity stake also is being pegged to go to the Nationals.

None of this information, however, has been relayed in any official form from MLB’s headquarters in New York to Nationals president Tony Tavares. Without an official agreement between the Orioles and MLB, it is still not completely certain the Nationals’ season opener Monday in Philadelphia will be televised.

“Right now I am simply the polar opposite of enlightened on this,” Tavares said. “The silence is absolutely deafening. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I just don’t know what’s really happening. It’s very frustrating.”

MLB President Bob DuPuy, Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Duffy Dyer, vice president and general manager of WTTG and WDCA, were unavailable for comment yesterday. WTTG is a Fox affiliate and WDCA a UPN affiliate. As of yesterday, industry sources said the Nationals’ opener next week is slated to air on WDCA, assuming the Angelos-MLB deal is completed, but that could still change.

Already in place for Angelos in the long-negotiated financial protection package are MLB-backed guarantees to his annual local revenue and future resale value for the franchise. The two sides have wrestled with a major philosophical divide over the ownership of TV territorial rights in the Middle Atlantic area. Angelos believes he owns them as an asset of the Orioles franchise. MLB counters that TV territories are only licensed out to teams and are subject to change.

The sweetheart deal for Angelos, as well as the continued delays in both the Nationals’ TV future and impending sale of the club, have caused significant anger within baseball’s executive committee, according to industry sources. The eight-owner panel, of which Angelos is a member, acts as a key adviser to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and helps set major policy for baseball.

Public discussion of the issue, however, has ground to a near halt as Selig has implemented a new gag order on the involved parties.

The Orioles, already believing they will gain short-term operational control of the new TV network and become the producer of Nationals games on TV, have begun logistical work on airing the Washington team’s games, such as marketing advertising time and reserving production trucks.

The agreement would require the creation of MASN in a matter of days, something that would present many technical and logistical hurdles but would not be impossible.

The MASN creation would appear to sidestep Comcast SportsNet, a crushing blow for a network whose predecessor, Home Team Sports, planned for years to carry a Washington baseball team. The Orioles have two seasons left on their distribution pact with the Bethesda sports outlet.

The drama has caused great anxiety not only with fans but with the seven groups bidding to purchase the Nationals. MLB ideally would like to reap at least $350million for the franchise, but that sum could be in jeopardy depending on the final details of its agreement with Angelos.

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