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Baseball? I Thought We'd Finished That Task

Sunday's rally to beat down the TV blackout of the Washington Nationals was a model of bipartisan, regional harmony, a rare sign of what politicians can do when they find themselves reasonably united with the public on an issue of widespread, if not exactly earthshattering, concern.

Gathered at RFK Stadium were Repos and Dems from Virginia and Maryland--Virginia congressmen Tom Davis (R) and Jim Moran (D), Maryland state legislators Anthony Brown and Peter Franchot, and Virginia delegate Brian Moran--all seeking to pressure Comcast cable and Peter Angelos' Mid-Atlantic Sports Network into reaching a deal to televise the games of the Nationals this summer.

But something was missing from the Sunday event: Any representation from the jurisdiction that the Nats call home. No Mayor Tony Williams. Not one of the five candidates running to succeed him. Not one of the 13 council members who have spent most of their waking hours over the past year wrangling over the new stadium and other baseball issues.

As Ian Koski of NationalsPride.com points out, Davis' threat to hold congressional hearings if Comcast and Angelos don't kiss and make up could help push this problem toward a solution, but the lack of interest on the part of D.C. officials doesn't exactly help.

Once again, the split between city and suburbs over a baseball franchise that exists primarily to provide economic aid to the District is evident and embarrassing. As mayoral candidate and stadium opponent Adrian Fenty repeatedly says, he and others on the council opposed the stadium deal but supposedly embrace the idea of having baseball here, and now that it is here, it behooves them to do what they can to make it a success. That means building a fan base, both in the burbs and in town. And there's no way that happens without putting the games on TV.

Of course, Angelos, still fighting a quixotic battle against a Washington franchise that he believes will sap support from his hapless Orioles, knows that too, so he's not exactly eager to get Nats games on the region's largest cable provider. And Comcast has its own selfish reasons for refusing to carry the games--the cable behemoth wants to maintain its near-monopoly on local sports coverage and prevent Angelos from establishing MASN as a 24-hour sports channel.

The latest news from the courts, however, makes it more unlikely than ever that any appreciable number of Nats games will be on TV this season. Maryland's highest court has decided to take on the legal dispute between MASN and Comcast, which is good news in that the legal process has been accelerated and will skip one level of appeals courts. But it's bad news in that the briefs aren't due from the lawyers until June 19, and the court won't hold a hearing until sometime after that, so unless MASN and Comcast have a miraculous meeting of the minds (or at least the wallets) before then, this baby is likely to drag on through the summer, meaning no baseball on TV this year.

The current TV schedule will put about as many New York Yankees games on Washington area TV screens as Washington Nationals games. For those of us who grew up in the Bronx and love those Bombers, that's welcome news. For the other 99.9 percent of D.C. area fans, that's pretty galling.

How to turn this around: Tom Davis and the other pols who spent their Sunday afternoon before the TV cameras at RFK need to buckle down and make good on their threat. Holding Comcast and Angelos up to public scorn and the prospect of federal regulatory hell is about the only weapon they'll understand.

By Marc Fisher |  March 28, 2006; 12:49 PM ET
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Maryland's appeals court is famously slow about arriving at any kind of decision. We're talking years.

Posted by: Matt | March 28, 2006 2:21 PM

One other party was absent: ownership. MLB has run out of excuses -- it's time to name an owner who might be in a position to help exercise some leverage here either with Angelos or Comcast or both. It's pretty obvious MLB couldn't care less.

Posted by: Meridian | March 28, 2006 3:20 PM

I'm stunned no one from the Nationals was present at the event on Sunday. It's in their best interests to get the cable fiasco resolved.

I gave up on Comcast last year and switched to RCN which offers MASN and the Nats games. If you have the means to switch to another cable provider or Direct TV then send Comcast a message that you, their paying customer, deserves what you're paying for.

Posted by: Keith | March 28, 2006 3:27 PM

I think MLB wants to stay as far away from Congress as possible, lest someone mention the word "antitrust" -- which could, when you think about it, be hurled against any of three players: Angelos, MLB, and Comcast.

A new owner needs to put the pressure on from a business perspective. One would also like to see localities that have granted licenses to Comcast to operate in their areas get involved.

I am not convinced though that Comcast is the evil party here. I think they are involved in a business dispute with Angelos in which each party is angling for advantage. I dont see good guys and bad guys. Nats fans are caught in the middle of a situation that MLB created. If we want anyone to blame, it's them. So the least they could do now is name an owner and thereby give us a dog in the fight.

Posted by: Meridian | March 28, 2006 4:14 PM

I live in Fairfax...Viva Cox for carrying the Nats!

Posted by: Jorge | March 28, 2006 5:39 PM

Marc,

You wrote, “…a baseball franchise that exists primarily to provide economic aid to the District” but didn’t you mean to say “a franchise that exists primarily to provide MLB with huge profits?” The day my DC taxes go down is the day I’ll believe I get a benefit out of this debacle.

Posted by: SW Resident | March 28, 2006 5:43 PM

I was really glad to see that not a single DC elected official attended the rally at RFK on Sunday.

That’s because the group sponsoring the event, NationalsPride, has one stated goal: to put the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) on cable. Well, any real fan knows that if MASN gets on cable TV, then Peter Angelos wins and the Nats lose.

For DC elected officials to support the MASN deal in anyway means that they are happy watching tens of millions of dollars each year leave the District and head straight up Highway 95 to Baltimore. That’s because as the TV deal currently stands, Angelos will make a reported $750 million off the Nats TV rights, and the new owner will only see 10% of his own teams TV revenues IF he is willing to fork over $75 million in cash to “Angelos TV” on day one. Keep in mind, that’s in addition to the $450 million they will shell out to MLB in order to buy the team.

Now if the new Nats owner had that extra money, he may be willing to cover stadium cost over-runs and neighborhood enrichment programs on the Anacostia Waterfront. At the very least he would have more money to spend on free agents and start building a better ball club.

City Council, the Mayor and other DC leaders fought extremely hard to bring the Nationals, their new stadium and the economic development that comes with it. So if they turned a blind eye to the lose of hundreds of millions in taxable income, to Baltimore and Peter Angelos no less, would be insane.

If people really want to watch the games, just get a dish. Better yet, demand that Peter Angelos put more games on broadcast TV, after all he was the one who cut the number of free over-the-air games from 80 to 40 this year in the first place. But any true Nats fan or Member of Congress content with Angelos receiving 90% of what should rightfully belong to the new Nats owner might want to consider routing for another team all together.

Marc, please keep writing on this issue! I fear the financial ramifications of this TV deal will be felt in the District for decades. There is much more at stake here than just watching games on TV.

Posted by: Patrick | March 28, 2006 10:36 PM

I'm so glad I can watch DC United on TV!

Posted by: Jacknut | March 29, 2006 10:59 AM

Marc,

What if we don't want Comcast to pick up another channel? surely they'll be providing it to us all for no extra charge, right? I have three words for anyone who wants the Nats on their local cable channel: Pay Per View. I don't want to pay more for something I have no desire to watch. Make it an extra channel, like HBO, and pay for it that way. The day my Comcast rates increase to support a multi-billion dollar industry like baseball is the day I leave Comcast behind.

I figure to 15 to 20 bucks a month during the season, you can get all the Nats you want, but don't charge me another dime, thank you.

Posted by: northzax | March 29, 2006 12:34 PM

"Of course, Angelos, still fighting a quixotic battle against a Washington franchise that he believes will sap support from his hapless Orioles, knows that too, so he's not exactly eager to get Nats games on the region's largest cable provider."

While there are many opinions on the whole TV rights deal and how it came about, Angelos has to pay the Nats $20 million plus regardless of who carries the MASN games so it would appear to be in his best interest to get them on Comcast and bring in revenues to cover that payment.

Posted by: RL | March 29, 2006 1:05 PM

The PPV idea is a decent idea, but barring that, if it's not on CABLE, that means DC residents are screwed? I beg to differ.

So-called die hard fans of the Nats have ALWAYS had an alternative way to watch the games not on Comcast that doesn't require a satellite dish, and it doesn't require complicated set up of any kind. It's a technology that's been around in a *meaningful* way to consumers for over a decade and that is still the only viable way for fans that have had to relocate to catch games without springing for satellite. It's called MLBTV, a little internet-based enterprise that is owned by MLB that allows fans to watch live over the web. If MLB actually cared about (1) making money and (2) building a fan base in DC for the Nats, it could/would/should issue a 1-year waiver (or however long it takes to end the stalemate) its local blackout requirement for the DC ZIP Codes that are served only by Comcast. Think the issue here is that the folks up in NYC don't have a clue or a care about making the best of the situation for fans while MASN and Comcast duke this out.

And for what it's worth, lighten up just a *little* on Angelos. A competitor franchise has been foisted on him and he sought to protect himself. Now he and the Nats have to play the hand they've both been dealt. He's got a valid, binding contract with MLB, and that's gold to him. Don't lose sight of the fact that Comcast SportsNet itself would really only be a boring part-time network (as they've accused MASN of being) without tape-delays, re-broadcasts and substantial feeds by Fox Sports Net (including the oh so lame "Best Damn Sport Show Period" - gimme a break). With MASN being a regional network, they'd be every bit as able to broadcast other sporting events and syndicated shows not covered by Comcast SportsNet (believe it or not, there really is a whole other world outside of DC).

Posted by: PJS | March 31, 2006 2:53 PM

Can I watch Nats games now on Direct TV? I looked for the game last night and couldn't find it anywhere - and it was blacked out on ESPN, which I didn't understand at all. One of the reasons I got Direct TV was bc I thought I could get the Nationals games, but now i don't know where to look for them. A little help would be appreciated. Thanks

Posted by: Confused | April 7, 2006 12:57 PM

Doesn't Congress have better things to do? I am tired of Tom Davis spending all his time worrying about baseball. Maybe he should quit and be the baseball commissioner. I would prefer my congressman to do his job.

Posted by: Former Republican | April 7, 2006 8:56 PM

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