Comcast lawsuit challenges right to air O's games

Provisions of deal that brought Nationals to D.C. under attack

Suit could delay getting games on TV

Comcast SportsNet contends it holds exclusive contract

April 22, 2005|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Major League Baseball's delicate deal to ensure the widespread broadcast of Washington Nationals baseball games while appeasing Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos hit a snag yesterday when Comcast SportsNet sued the Orioles and baseball over broadcast rights.

The lawsuit, which claims Comcast has a contract guaranteeing it exclusive rights to negotiate for Orioles broadcast rights through November 2005, will delay efforts to get Nationals games carried on local cable television and potentially limit advertising revenue that could have come with increased exposure.

It also opens an awkward rift between Comcast and the Orioles, which have been television partners for more than a decade.

The deal struck in April between Angelos and MLB would hand broadcast rights to a regional sports network majority-owned by the Orioles.

Industry sources say the recently formed Mid-Atlantic Sports Network would, in turn, charge cable providers $2 to $3 per subscriber to receive the Orioles and Nationals. Presumably, the fee would be passed on to cable consumers.

With Comcast on the sidelines while its lawsuit plays out, baseball fans will see only Nationals games already carried on Washington stations WTTG/Channel 5 and UPN WDCA Channel 20, as well as the few games nationally broadcast by ESPN or Fox.

The cable provider sought to portray its lawsuit, in part, as a fight for baseball-loving cable subscribers, who could potentially be forced to pay extra to get broadcasts of both teams' games over cable.

`MLB should pay'

"If Major League Baseball wants to compensate Angelos for bringing the Nationals to Washington, that's their right," said David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp.

"But MLB should pay for it, as opposed to creating a structure where cable and satellite customers in Baltimore and Washington are going to have to pay an Angelos tax in order to finance whatever obligation MLB felt it had to give the Orioles."

Bob Whitelaw, executive vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, said the network has offered Comcast the opportunity to distribute Nationals' games. He said Comcast turned down the offer, instead demanding an ownership interest in MASN.

"That unfounded suit filed today will not deter MASN in its efforts to present the Nationals' games," he said. "It should not be forgotten that MASN will pay the Nationals $20 million in rights fees for this season."

Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, said yesterday, "We ... are obviously disappointed by the lawsuit. There have been discussions among Comcast, the Orioles and MASN. While we are hopeful those discussions can lead to a quick resolution of the issues among them, nothing in the litigation has any impact on the current television schedule of the Nationals or rights fees being paid to the Nationals."

The legal tangle is another potential setback for Major League Baseball, which owns the Nationals and fought through months of negotiations to get Angelos to agree to let the former Montreal Expos relocate to Washington. Angelos argued that the Orioles would lose millions in revenue by having another team located nearby.

Angelos acquiesced to the move weeks ago when a deal was struck to create MASN and give it exclusive rights to broadcast both Orioles and Nationals games in the Baltimore-Washington market and beyond.

Comcast SportsNet has a contract to carry Orioles games through 2006, after which the Orioles plan to begin producing and distributing Orioles and Nationals games through MASN. Such networks can be very lucrative to the teams that own them, making the difference between profits and losing money for some owners.

Terms of contract

But in a lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, Comcast says its decade-old contract with the Orioles gives it exclusive rights to negotiate an extension of its broadcast rights through November this year. If no deal is reached, court documents say, the contract gives Comcast the right to match any offer the Orioles receive from a third party.

By forming a deal with MLB and cutting out Comcast, the Orioles violated the contract, the cable provider contends.

Washington Nationals President and CEO Tony Tavares said he was disappointed in the suit, given widespread interest in getting ballgames on television. He also said he wished someone had contacted him in advance about the suit.

Many Nationals fans had hoped Comcast would agree to carry more Nats games this season other than the ones - almost half - being shown on WDCA-TV UPN 20. That seems unlikely now that the TV dispute has ended up in the courts.

Comcast suggests in the suit that its goal was not to deny fans televised games. Rather, it says it hoped to work out a deal under which it could televise Nationals games while it continued to broadcast Orioles contests.

"The lawsuit is not aimed at the Nationals in any way," Comcast said in a statement. "Comcast has sought for months to negotiate a deal with MLB to ensure that all Nationals games would be broadcast to the widest possible audience."

Sun staff writers Jeff Barker and Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

The points

In its suit against the Baltimore Orioles, Major League Baseball and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic maintains it:

Owns the rights to produce and broadcast on local pay TV Orioles games through 2006.

Holds exclusive rights to negotiate until November 2005 for a contract extension or new contract for future TV rights.

Holds the right to match any agreement between the Orioles and a third party for future local pay TV.

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