- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Washington Nationals were all over national television this weekend — on Fox, TBS and MLB Network.

The Los Angeles Dodgers may have had something to do with that, but the Nationals have certainly become a more high-profile national baseball attraction — at least, Bryce Harper’s Washington Nationals.

Locally, too, the Nationals are far more popular TV show than last year, according to Sports Business Journal. Washington’s average local television rating on MASN is up 41 percent from last season, when the team was also a first-place contender.

Don’t pop the champagne, yet, though. That just means their paltry local numbers from last season have risen to an average of 2.69 — near the bottom of the barrel of Major League Baseball, and dwarfed by the numbers registered by their MASN partner, the Baltimore Orioles, who, with a 5.67 rating, are in the top five in baseball so far this season.

Their MASN partner — that’s rich.

The Nationals are in a feud with their so-called “partners” over the pile of cash the regional network has generated since it was created in 2005 as part of the agreement with Orioles owner Peter Angelos to move the Montreal Expos to Washington.

It’s a fight that has been going on for three years — ever since the Nationals’ chance to reset the terms of the MASN deal opened up, according to the original terms of the contract.

When that deal was made in 2005, it was under the gun of the negotiations to move the Expos without a legal fight from Angelos, who would claim Washington as his market. And, according to those close to the negotiations, it was also made under the presumption that one way or another, come 2012, baseball and the Nationals wouldn’t be dealing with the contentious Angelos.

Angelos is still around, alive and well and just as contentious as ever, battling baseball’s decision to award Washington $300 million in television reset rights fee for the period from 2012 to 2015. That battle has gone to the New York Supreme Court, where a judge is expected to rule sometime soon.

What could be a problem, though, is that the pile of cash to divvy between the Nationals and Orioles is likely getting smaller.

The revenue in regional sports network television is not in the number of viewers. If it were, the Nationals’ deal with MASN would be a gift for the Washington baseball team.

It’s about subscribers — the number of households that have MASN on their cable package, most of which likely have never watched a baseball game, let alone an Orioles or Nationals game.

To date, the cable television network game has been hostage situation of sorts — customers forced to pay for networks on their package they never view, from MASN to DIY Network.

But the landscape is changing, thanks to a generation of viewers who are “cutting the cord” from cable, using other services like Netflix and Hulu instead of cable. Streaming television is growing as well, as HBO, Showtime and ESPN are now offering streaming services that allow you to watch the networks you pay for as part of your cable television bill.

That is a sign of desperate networks trying to hang on to viewers, because as more people cut the cord, subscriptions are dropping. ESPN has lost 3.2 million subscribers in one year, according to The Wall Street Journal, and reportedly has been ordered to cut its budgets for the next two seasons.

If ESPN is losing households, MASN probably is as well, which puts the future of the money that the Nationals and Orioles divide at risk.

That won’t likely come into play when the court decision comes down about the current Nationals-Orioles dispute, but it could force Angelos to either sell the network or take in a partner. Don’t be surprised if Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is an interested buyer or partner. He has already taken a step toward network independence with the creation of his online Monumental Network. He and Angelos have mutual interests and acquaintances that could result in some sort of deal.

Whatever happens, the pile of cash that the Orioles and Nationals are battling over now is likely getting smaller. This may be the last big cash grab for Washington.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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