The ongoing MASN dispute has hampered the Washington Nationals’ ability to pursue free agents this offseason, and could ultimately hurt their chances of keeping Bryce Harper.
The Washington Nationals have been through a lot over the last few years. They’ve risen from the cellar of the National League into perennial contenders, they’ve made the postseason twice and they’ve had two disappointing seasons in which they missed the playoffs despite being picked by many to go to the World Series.
Along the way, the Nationals have put together one of the most talented rosters in the game. Young stars like Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper have risen to prominence over the last two years. Max Scherzer, one of the game’s best starting pitchers, signed a $210 million deal to spend the rest of his career in the nation’s capital.
Indeed, the Nationals have seen many changes in recent years, and most of them have been for the best. But through it all there has been one major storyline that is anything but positive for the team: the ongoing dispute with MASN and the Orioles. It’s a storyline that has gotten relatively little attention and has been ignored by many fans, but it could ultimately have terrible consequences for the franchise.
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Yes, the team’s main concern right now is righting the wrongs of last season. But with several major financial needs coming up in the near future for the Nationals, the MASN dispute has to be one of — if not the — biggest priority for the Nationals right now.
The dispute has its roots in the Nationals’ original move to D.C. from Montreal. In exchange for allowing the Nationals to move into their broadcast territory, the Orioles were guaranteed majority ownership of MASN as part of a complicated TV deal with the Nationals.
The problem for the Nationals is that they are not getting anywhere near as much money from television revenue as they should be, and according to principle owner Ed Cohen, the lack of TV revenue is putting the Nationals at a financial and competitive disadvantage to other teams.
Here’s an expert from a sworn affidavit Cohen filed late last week, via James Wagner of the Washington Post:
"“Without this added and steady income, the Nationals cannot bring full economic confidence to investments in multiyear player contracts to keep up with the fierce competition for top players — especially when such control over finances is in the hands of a neighboring club,” Cohen said. “Delay also hamstrings the Nationals’ ability to invest in stadium and related improvements which would generate additional income and help keep the Nationals competitive.”"
For the Nationals, the idea that they could be financially hamstrung for the next several years is alarming. The team’s young core of Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and others will eventually need to be paid to stay, and if the Nationals can’t commit to multiple expensive, long-term deals, then everything they have worked so hard to build could easily disappear.
Of course, the greatest concern here is Harper. Harper is arguably the best player on the planet, and he may very well become the highest-paid athlete in the world when he becomes a free agent in 2019.
The Nationals absolutely must keep Harper, even if it takes a 10-year, $500+ million commitment to make it happen. But if the team doesn’t have the sources of income that every other team has (namely, a fair TV rights deal), it’s hard to see the Nationals being able to compete with teams like the Yankees and the Dodgers for Harper.
Harper is just one of many financial commitments the Nationals will have to make in the relatively near future. Hopefully for the team, the MASN dispute will be resolved soon. But if the process continues to drag on and if the Nationals continue to get snubbed by Peter Angelos and the Orioles, then the consequences could be devastating for a team that has worked so hard to establish itself over the last few years.