Annoyed fans stay tuned to TV talks

Nats supporters frustrated over inability to see games

Broadcast rights in negotiation

The Nationals

April 16, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

It was a night of memories for those who had yearned for baseball in Washington - Livan Hernandez's stalwart pitching, Vinny Castilla's double-triple-homer bonanza, a win in the first home game in 34 years.

Or wait ... it was a night of memories for anyone lucky enough to have tickets to the Nationals' home opener at RFK Stadium or to live in the immediate vicinity of the District.

For would-be Nationals fans living in nearby Anne Arundel and Howard counties, Thursday was a night of frustration, one on which a radio and a good imagination had to stand in for actually watching Washington's new baseball team defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3.

In fact, Nationals fans in the suburbs shared by Baltimore and Washington have hardly been able to see an inning this year. Games are carried on WDCA/Channel 20, unavailable on cable systems in Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford or Baltimore counties. The deal was arranged by the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which is controlled by the Orioles under an agreement with Major League Baseball.

Some fans say that after their long battle for the team - against the best efforts of Orioles management - the absence of televised games is a painful shock.

"People who live in the territory that was the big bone of contention are being left out in the cold completely," said Colin Mills, president of the 130-member Nats Fan Club. "For them, this is sort of the ultimate indignity."

With the team tied for first place, fans say they want to catch the Nats while they're playing well.

"D.C. went to all this trouble to get a team and now people who live nearby can't even watch it," said Chris Fries, a Maryland City resident who lives about 23 miles from Washington.

Fries said she has been ducking outside with an old black and white portable TV and tuning in the games with an antenna. "You have to get right up on top of it to even see the score," she said. "It's supposed to be the national pastime but we can barely watch it."

It's hard to tell how widespread the outrage is, because no one knows how many of the approximately 730,000 residents of Anne Arundel and Howard are Nationals fans.

Managers at local sports bars expressed frustration that they couldn't carry Thursday's historic game and said patrons have asked for the games. But they added that customers have not shown widespread disgust when told the broadcasts were unavailable.

"We're not getting a huge rallying cry around the Nationals," said Dan Mollen, entertainment director at Annapolis' Acme Bar and Grill. "People are still pretty loyal to the Orioles in this town."

About 10 Nationals games may be broadcast on WTTG/Channel 5, which is available in Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford, and others may be broadcast on cable if Comcast can work out a deal with Major League Baseball. But a spokesman for Comcast, which unsuccessfully bid for the Nationals games, said negotiations are stuck in preliminary stages.

In a further indignity, Nationals fans say, the new club's games against the Atlanta Braves this week were blacked out on TBS because under league rules, the superstation can't televise into the home team's market regardless of whether that team is on local TV.

The deal negotiated by the league and Orioles owner Peter Angelos will ultimately give the Orioles about two-thirds of a regional sports network that will broadcast both teams' games. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has not yet negotiated broadcast rights with local cable providers, so it's unclear when Nationals games might appear in a broader area.

MASN spokesman Bob Whitelaw has said his company, having paid for the broadcast rights, wants to provide Nationals games to as many viewers as possible as soon as possible.

But Angelos' critics say the Orioles owner and MASN officials have little incentive to broadcast Nationals games in the Baltimore-Washington suburbs.

"I just think it's such a deliberate strategic move because Anne Arundel and Howard are the battlegrounds," said Roger Caplan, whose Howard County ad agency places commercials on local sports broadcasts.

"[Angelos] sees all those kids and figures that if they can't watch the Nationals games on TV, they won't be wearing the T-shirts and the caps," Caplan said.

Comcast spokesman David Nevins said it shouldn't be incumbent on his company, which controls cable rights in all Baltimore-area counties except for Carroll, to put Nationals games on television.

"The Nationals can negotiate to put games on any of the channels we already air in those areas just as the Orioles did for years in Washington," he said.

Nevins said Comcast has received a few dozen complaints about games not being available but is unlikely to add Channel 20, which will broadcast 79 games this year, to its Baltimore-area cable packages.

"We share the fans' frustration," he said. "But I think it will take a little bit of time for the Nationals to negotiate over-the-air deals out of their immediate market."

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