- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

Comcast and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network yesterday struck a deal to end the dispute that has left 1.6 million people in the metropolitan area unable to watch most Washington Nationals games.

Under the agreement, the network is expected to be available on Comcast cable systems in the Washington and Baltimore areas by Sept. 1. The deal also will apply to subscribers in Salisbury, Md., and an additional 600,000 subscribers in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina will receive the network over the next two years.

“This is great news for sports fans throughout the Mid-Atlantic region,” said Peter Angelos, managing partner of the Baltimore Orioles, the majority owner of MASN. “We are pleased to have reached this agreement with Comcast, which will allow both the Nationals and the Orioles to maximize their exposure throughout the territory.”

The deal comes about a week after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave MASN the right to select an outside arbitrator to help end the dispute, which had dragged on for nearly two years. Under the deal, each side agreed to drop any legal complaints against the other. Financial terms were not disclosed, but a source with knowledge of the deal said MASN agreed to lower its price for carriage by 5 percent.

That decrease in price is likely to apply to the five other carriers that already carry MASN, including Cox, Charter, Verizon and RCN cable, plus DirecTV satellite service.

“Comcast is pleased to have reached an agreement with MASN,” said Comcast’s executive vice president, David L. Cohen. “We’ve always wanted to bring the Nationals to Comcast customers and want to thank everyone on Comcast and MASN’s team who have worked to bring baseball to our D.C. area customers.”

Nationals President Stan Kasten said he had heard a deal had been struck but would reserve comment until he knew the agreement was official. But Nationals manager Frank Robinson praised the news.

“That’s how you create new fans,” Robinson said. “That’s the way you get your fan base to come out to the ballpark. You get people saying, ‘Hey did you see the game on TV last night? Let’s go see them in person.’”

The dispute between Comcast and MASN centered mainly on the decision by MASN to begin broadcasting Orioles games in 2007. Comcast SportsNet, the regional sports network owned by Comcast, sued on the grounds that such an agreement violated an existing contract between the cable company and the team. Comcast’s claims were rejected twice in court, but the company continued to refuse carriage of MASN, insisting that the network was overpriced.

MASN was formed with the assistance of Major League Baseball as part of a deal to allowing the Orioles and Nationals to share a broadcast territory. The broadcast rights to Washington had been the exclusive rights of the Orioles since 1981, but a new deal was needed when the Nationals began play in last year. The Orioles currently have a 90 percent ownership stake in the network and pay the Nationals a fee of about $20 million. Over time, the Nationals’ share of the network will increase to 33 percent, and the franchise fee will adjust according to the market.

As the dispute between MASN and Comcast dragged on this year, several public officials from the District, Maryland and Virginia tried to put pressure on both sides to reach a deal. Earlier this year, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, led hearings to discuss the dispute and also asked the FCC to hear MASN’s complaint requesting carriage.

In a surprise move, the FCC last month found that Comcast may have discriminated against MASN and ordered the two sides to negotiate in an effort to reach a settlement. The FCC also said MASN could select an arbitrator to end the dispute if an agreement could not be reached.

“We are grateful for the support we have received from public officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, whose support was critical to getting the games on television,” Mr. Angelos said.

District Mayor Anthony A. Williams also was pleased to hear of the agreement.

“Bravo. It’s about time,” he said. “This is great news for fans who have welcomed the Nationals to D.C. and want to watch [Alfonso] Soriano on TV as he bangs those home runs.”

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