I was listening to the Nats On the Go podcast (which is really quite excellent). The well-informed hosts Craig McHenry of Capitol Baseball and Joe Drugan of The Nats Blog spoke about a situation that’s flown under the radar of most Nationals fans: the front office has been working to renegotiate their contract with MASN, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, owned by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and the result will have huge implications for the future of the team. So let’s dig in.
Most people thought this deal would be done by now. In fact the Nationals had counted on a substantial increase in TV revenue to help boost offseason spending in 2011. A year before, the Texas Rangers negotiated a deal with Fox Sports Southwest reportedly worth $3 billion over 20 years. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim settled a similar deal worth even more with Fox Sports West. The deals enabled the Rangers to throw money at Yu Darvish, while the Angels signed a historic deal with Albert Pujols without mortgaging their future. (Here is an excellent article from USA Today on the growth of cable TV deals.) Other teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox own substantial shares in the network broadcasting their games (YES and NESN, respectively), and Orioles owner Peter Angelos also owns a majority share of the network that broadcasts Orioles games, MASN.
MASN of course also broadcasts Nationals games, and they pay for the privilege, $29 million a year. Compare that to the deals signed by the Rangers and Angels, and you can see why the Lerners are looking for a bit more. This deal is revisited every five years. This year the Nationals want something in the neighborhood of $100 million a year. MASN (which the Nationals actually own a small stake in) has offered $35 million. (The way the deal works is that the Orioles get the same fee as the Nationals; it’s unclear if MASN could even afford $200 total to the two teams.) MLB is the final arbiter in the dispute, and they selected a committee of owners from the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Tampa Bay Rays to decide, led by Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president for labor relations and human resources. Their decision was expected at the beginning of this month. MLB has made it known that the decision will not be made until July at the earliest. The parties are apparently so far apart that they have had trouble settling the dispute.
MASN’s case rests on the Nationals’ low ratings and a fanbase that has been charitably described as apathetic. But that appears to be changing. The Nationals’ ratings have been on the rise since 2010, seeming to track well with attendance, and if this season’s attendance is any indication, ratings are going up very quickly. The Nats are in a great position with a young team with a bright future doing very well, spiking the viewership, at a time their fiscal future is somewhat in question. It’s not like the Lerners are cheap. They’ve been willing to throw money after good and bad, especially to make a statement signing like Jayson Werth. And if MLB splits it down the middle and settles the deal around $70 million a year, that’s a serious chunk of even more money to reinvest back into the team. That’s money they’re going to need to land a prime center fielder free agent like perhaps Shane Victorino or to re-sign the young bucks like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg down the road. It’s the kind of money that can lock in the pieces they’ve put in place over the past few years.
Suffice it to say, this is a very big deal for the future of the Nationals, and it’s a story that all fans of the Nationals (and MLB) should be playing close attention to. Stay tuned in early July, and we’ll see how much Mike Rizzo and company have to throw around this coming offseason.