- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy yesterday promised District officials a swift expansion to the Washington Nationals’ local TV schedule currently limited to 79 games.

In a half-hour conference call with District Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, DuPuy said cable and satellite distribution deals soon will supplement the slate of over-the-air games on WDCA-TV (Channel 20), with about 120 of 162 regular-season Nationals games ultimately being televised locally this year.

“I told [Williams and Evans] that we thought it was important to get as many games on over-the-air as quickly as possible, so that fans could see those games, not just those with cable, and that we were committed to getting more games distributed by other means as quickly as we can,” DuPuy said.

Late yesterday WDCA added three games to its Nationals’ TV schedule: next week’s three-game series at Atlanta starting Monday. Nationals telecasts on the station resume tonight with a game at Florida.

The TV issue came to a head late Wednesday and yesterday when the Nationals’ second and third games of the new season, both Washington wins, were not televised locally. Evans responded by briefly considering rescinding the financing deal to build a new Nationals ballpark in Southeast.

“We got [MLB’s] attention, and they now understand that there are people here upset by this, and a fan base exists that desperately wants to get to know this team,” Evans said. “And I think we understand their situation better as well. But they do have to explain some of this stuff better. Right now, there’s still a perception out there that we’re getting robbed in this TV deal.”

The perception has been fueled by terms of an agreement, six months in the making, between MLB and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos that created the regional Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) that will serve as the Nationals’ primary TV home for games not slated for WDCA or a national outlet.

The Orioles will start with 90 percent equity in MASN, with their share ultimately reduced to no less than 70 percent. The Nationals are additionally slated to receive a $21 million annual rights fee from MASN, rising to $25 million within several years. DuPuy told the District officials the Nationals’ right fee is higher than those of 17 other MLB teams, and argued the MASN equity split is less important because few profits are expected in the next several years.

The new TV joint venture, however, has no distribution agreements with any cable or satellite TV provider. And the completion of the unprecedented MLB-Angelos deal just before Opening Day already has had damaging effects to the Nationals. The club’s Opening Day telecast Monday drew about 38,000 TV households, a mere fraction of other daytime programming like “Oprah” and “Judge Judy,” as well as the Orioles’ season opener on WJZ-TV (Channel 13) that aired at the same time as Washington’s game. WDCA did not conduct any significant marketing to promote Monday’s telecast.

MASN executives like DuPuy said distribution deals are expected soon and that the Nationals find themselves in the same position as teams like the New York Yankees and NBA’s Denver Nuggets did when their regional sports networks started. But no specific timetables have been offered.

“These type of [distribution] negotiations do take time. We’ve just started, and it’s simply not something you do overnight,” said Bob Whitelaw, a MASN executive.

The club’s 79 over-the-air games are the second most in baseball, and double the MLB average.

Executives for Comcast, the dominant Washington-area cable provider, said no discussions on a distribution deal with MASN have occurred since a brief courtesy meeting March 31. Those talks, whenever they start in earnest, promise to be particularly tense because the cable giant operates rival network Comcast SportsNet.

Even without distribution in place yet for MASN, Nationals fans do have a few options to supplement their viewing beyond games on WDCA, and the handful of contests airing on national outlets. MLB’s Extra Innings TV package on cable and satellite TV and the MLB.TV online service each plan to carry much of the Nationals’ schedule, though for the foreseeable future they will rely on video feeds provided by the Nationals’ opposition. Both services carry a subscription fee.

As many as eight Nationals games not on WDCA’s schedule will be shown this season on Fox, ESPN and TBS.

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