- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Baltimore Orioles scored a giant victory over legal rival Comcast Corp. yesterday when a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge dismissed the cable giant’s breach of contract lawsuit against the team and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).

The Orioles’ successful defense against Comcast ultimately could expand the number of Washington-area homes who can see the Nationals games after the breach of contract on which Comcast based its refusal to carry MASN and the Nationals games it shows was struck down by Judge Durke Thompson. Distribution of the team’s games this debut season in Washington has been limited to DirecTV and RCN Cable and over-the-air through WDCA-TV (Channel20).

“The court has now made clear that this is a bogus lawsuit, and Comcast’s old excuse for not carrying Nationals games has been swept aside,” said Arnold Weiner, a Lutherville, Md., attorney representing the Orioles. “They should begin carrying the games immediately.”

Said Orioles owner Peter Angelos, “This is an absolute confirmation of the position we’ve taken. We’re pleased, definitely. Now we can get back to getting all the Nationals games to all the Nationals fans, which is how it needs to be. Some people have said we’re trying to keep those games from people, and that certainly is not consistent with what we’re doing.”

At risk in the lawsuit, filed by Comcast in late April, was effective control over sports TV in the Mid-Atlantic region. With the legal victory in hand, the Orioles will continue development of MASN and steadily encroach on the previously unchallenged position of Bethesda-based Comcast SportsNet (CSN). MASN holds the local pay TV rights for the Nationals, will bring in the Orioles starting in 2007 and plans to begin 24-hour programming next spring with a variety of local sports.

If Thompson’s ruling stands, in two years CSN will be reduced to having the Washington Wizards and Capitals and D.C. United as its programming pillars, leaving a gaping hole in its summer schedule.

CSN’s lawsuit claimed the Orioles and Major League Baseball, by formalizing the linkage of the Nationals’ and Orioles’ TV rights under the MASN umbrella, breached its legal right to match a third-party offer for the Orioles’ TV rights starting in 2007.

But Thompson agreed with the Orioles’ argument that MASN is simply a new name for TCR Inc., an Orioles subsidiary directly involved in the TV rights deal with CSN’s predecessor. And as such, there was no third-party offer to prompt the right-to-match provision.

“The court does not believe the sale of an interest [in MASN] is a triggering act of first right of refusal rights,” Thompson said.

MLB received a 10 percent stake in MASN, which ultimately rises to 33 percent, as part of an agreement struck in March with the Orioles to provide some economic protection against the arrival of the Nationals. MLB is reviewing bids for that MASN stake as part of ongoing efforts to sell the Nationals. The Orioles control the remaining MASN equity.

Comcast officials were surprised at both Thompson’s ruling and that he made it immediately from the bench, a sentiment displayed by the prompt exit of Comcast officials from the courtroom. Thompson did grant Comcast the option to file an amended complaint within 30 days against the Orioles on one supposed count of breach of contract, one of three primary claims forwarded by the company. But Thompson stressed heavily that any amended complaint will require “new facts, and I mean new facts.”

“We are disappointed in the judge’s decision today,” said David Cohen, Comcast executive vice president. “He has invited to us to amend the complaint, and we will promptly decide whether we will amend or appeal. We remain fully confident in our legal position and believe that it will be vindicated upon further review.”

Cohen’s statement means a Comcast-MASN carriage deal will not be forthcoming immediately. But Orioles officials said a previous offer to Comcast still stands that would grant the company the same monetary terms to carry MASN held by DirecTV and RCN Cable. And if that offer is unacceptable, the Orioles also have proposed bringing in an independent arbitrator.

Nationals officials cheered yesterday’s decision.

“Anything that brings us closer to getting the games to more people is a positive step in my mind, and hopefully this will achieve that,” team president Tony Tavares said. “But it’s important to remember that this is still a marathon and not a sprint.”

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