The Washington Nationals have no solid plan in place for broadcasting their games with just 116 days remaining before Opening Day.
Representing arguably the largest unresolved piece of the Nationals’ relocation puzzle, the team’s broadcast plans have dragged on far longer than anyone expected when Major League Baseball announced the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington on Sept.29.
The team’s TV distribution, however, is tied directly into still unfinished compensation talks with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. And without a deal with Angelos, the Nationals and their broadcast partners, whoever they may be, cannot begin necessary preparations, such as hiring announcers, selling advertising time and organizing production schedules.
“We’re still struggling at some of this. It’s been tough sledding,” Nationals president Tony Tavares said. “I have no doubt we’ll ultimately get all this done, but I certainly would have liked to have had the radio deal done by now.”
The broadcast delays contrast strongly against other parts of team operations over the past 10 weeks, a productive period in which the Nationals have secured a general manager, field manager, team name, logo and several key roster additions. More than 18,000 season tickets have been sold in less than a month, a team store is open next to RFK Stadium and the D.C. Council will grant final legislative approval for a new ballpark in Southeast next week.
Tavares, however, has found that dropping more than 500 hours of live programming a year into an already jam-packed radio market is not the easiest sell, even with Washington contracting a serious case of Nationals fever.
“The terms [proposed] out there are not what I would call ideal,” Tavares said. “But maybe my standards are too high.”
Industry sources said WTEM (AM-980) is the most likely radio home for the Nationals, with sister stations WWRC (AM-1260) and WTNT (AM-570) perhaps contributing. But again, no deal is in place. Executives for Clear Channel Communications, which controls the trio of stations, were not available for comment.
The Orioles have been on Clear Channel’s Washington AM stations the last four seasons but have been forced to share advertising profits instead of garnering an upfront rights fee.
Aiding Tavares with the radio talks is Corey Busch, who worked for several years for Major League Baseball as a consultant on the Expos relocation.
The Nationals’ TV distribution, meanwhile, is out of Tavares’ hands and being handled entirely by MLB executives. Even before the formal relocation announcement, MLB was developing a new regional sports network that would air games of both the Nationals and Orioles. Angelos would hold a majority equity stake in the new channel, leaving a smaller piece for the future owners of the Nationals.
MLB also brought in Neal Pilson, a prominent TV industry consultant and former president of CBS Sports, to help work out the myriad details involved in starting the channel and using it to help avoid a nasty legal battle with Angelos.
The Orioles owner has long contended the arrival of a Washington area team would render substantial economic damage to his club. Angelos is negotiating a hefty deal in which MLB will provide guarantees to his annual local revenue and future resale value for the Orioles, as well as part ownership of the regional sports network.
More than two months after the relocation announcement, however, Angelos and MLB are still at odds on several key provisions of the pact, including how long the fiscal guarantees will last.
“We’re still in the process of working everything out,” Pilson said. “Something obviously needs to happen for April 2005.”
The lack of tangible progress with TV distribution also has slowed the Nationals’ sales process. MLB, current owners of the team, is in the early stages of an auction to sell the club, with a loose goal of finding a new owner before Opening Day.
But without clarity on the team’s forthcoming revenues from local TV — a stream that represents about one-seventh of total revenues for a typical MLB team — prospective bidders have found it difficult to put a precise value on the team.
Comcast, which provides cable service for most of the Washington area and operates the local cable sports outlet Comcast SportsNet, is similarly in the dark. CSN executives declined to comment.
Even if Angelos were not a player in the Nationals’ TV landscape, creating a distribution plan for the team on short notice would be a challenge. Comcast SportsNet carries the Orioles, Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games and likely would be unable to carry the Nationals without creating a second channel. In fact, CSN’s predecessor, Home Team Sports, had tentative plans to create a second channel whenever Washington regained baseball.
Tavares said there is no chance the Nationals will not be on the radio and TV when the season starts. But the weeks leading up to the season are guaranteed to be frenetic.
“We’ll get there. We’re just not there yet,” Tavares said.
Note — The Nationals sold outfielder Valentino Pascucci to the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League for $300,000 yesterday. Pascucci, the Expos’ 15th-round pick in the 1995 draft, batted .177 with two homers in 32 games last season.
The move leaves Washington with 39 players on its 40-man roster, giving interim general manager Jim Bowden room to sign a free agent at this weekend’s winter meetings or acquire a player in Monday’s Rule5 draft. Bowden said the club could clear even more space on the 40-man roster in coming days, either through releasing a player or completing a trade.