Orioles given clearance to air games regionally

Comcast suit dismissed

broadcast to start in '07

July 28, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - The Orioles are clear to broadcast their games on a regional cable network starting in 2007. The clearance came yesterday after a Montgomery County circuit judge dismissed a lawsuit by Comcast SportsNet claiming the regional network was created in violation of Comcast's contract with the Orioles.

It is unclear whether Comcast Corp. now will resume negotiations to broadcast Washington Nationals games produced by the regional Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

The cable giant had said it wouldn't carry the games as long as its lawsuit against the Orioles was pending.

"Now that the court has made it clear this was a bogus lawsuit, Comcast's only excuse for not carrying Nationals games has been swept aside," said Arnold Weiner, one of the attorneys who argued for the Orioles and the club's cable arm, TCR Sports, at yesterday's hearing.

Circuit Court Judge Durke G. Thompson dismissed the case, saying the Orioles' decision to launch a regional network did not violate Comcast's contractual right to match any offer for future Orioles broadcast rights.

"We are disappointed in the judge's decision today," said David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp., which owns Comcast SportsNet. "He has invited us to amend the complaint, and we will promptly decide whether we will amend or appeal. We remain fully confident in our legal position and believe that it will be vindicated upon further review."

Comcast officials offered no comment on possible negotiations regarding Nationals broadcasts.

MASN was created as part of a compensation package that Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos negotiated when the Expos moved from Montreal into what he considered to be competing territory in Washington.

Though the Orioles own 90 percent of MASN under the deal, struck in April, the Nationals could eventually own as much as a third of the network.

With Comcast refusing to broadcast MASN-produced Nationals games, subscribers in the Washington area see only games carried on Washington stations WTTG/Channel 5 and WDCA/Channel 20, as well as the few games nationally broadcast.

The Orioles hope to reach a deal with Comcast, which controls cable distribution to the large majority of households in the Baltimore-Washington area. If Comcast refuses to distribute MASN, the network would be unable to deliver Orioles and Nationals games to millions of homes.

In a separate legal matter, the Orioles have asked the Federal Communications Commission to order Comcast to carry the games, saying the cable provider is using its dominant market position to harm MASN.

Comcast SportsNet sued the Orioles in April, saying the club's plans to launch MASN violated Comcast's exclusive rights to negotiate an extension of Orioles television rights, which expire after next season.

Comcast also said it had the right to match any offer the Orioles received from a third party if an extension agreement was not reached by November.

"They want to snatch these rights from us, rights we've been paying on for 10 years," said attorney John E. Schmidtlein of Williams & Connolly LLP, the Washington firm representing Comcast.

The Orioles argued MASN is nothing more than a trade name for the club's broadcast arm, TCR Sports, and it does not count as a third party under the deal with Comcast.

"If I could hang something on the wall, it would be a flag with big red letters that said, `Judge, there is no third party,'" said Rockville attorney Albert D. Brault, who argued for the Orioles.

Comcast attorneys said because the Orioles brought in Major League Baseball as a 10 percent partner in MASN, the regional network became a separate legal entity.

However, Thompson said under a strict reading of the 1996 deal, the Orioles' interpretation was correct. He gave attorneys for Comcast a sliver of hope by granting them 30 days to come up with an alternative argument.

Attorneys for the Orioles said they weren't surprised the judge reached a rapid decision. "It was a bogus lawsuit when it was filed, and it obviously seemed bogus to the judge today," said Baltimore attorney Dick Falcon.

MASN officials wasted no time calling on Comcast to distribute Nationals games produced by the network.

"They cannot hide behind this anymore," said MASN spokesman Vince Wladika. "There's no reason for them not to do a deal. They're just depriving the fans."

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