Comcast Cable has agreed to carry the Orioles-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, ending a 16-month standoff that kept Washington Nationals games unavailable to 1.6 million cable customers in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.
MASN, which will also carry Orioles games next year, is expected to be available to those customers at the beginning of September. Over the next two years, Comcast will offer MASN to an additional 600,000 customers in areas farther from the Baltimore-Washington region. Terms of the deal, reached yesterday, were not disclosed.
"This is great news for sports fans throughout the Mid-Atlantic region," said Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos in a statement. "We are pleased to have reached this agreement with Comcast, which will allow both the Nationals and the Orioles to maximize their exposure throughout the territory. We are grateful for the support we have received from public officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, whose support was critical to getting the games on television."
Angelos could not be reached last night for further comment. But he has said that MASN will be a vital source of revenue for the Orioles as they strive to compete with financial heavyweights such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The value of the network would have remained depressed as long as Comcast, the region's dominant cable provider, refused to carry it.
"It secured the future of this franchise," said Orioles counsel Alan M. Rifkin, who worked on the MASN-Comcast negotiations from the start. "It means that the franchise will be on solid financial footing now and for the future."
Rifkin said that without MASN, the future of the Orioles would have been "very bleak."
Asked when the benefits will become apparent, he said, "You're going to see it immediately."
Comcast officials said they were happy to finally bring Nationals games to the area.
"Comcast is pleased to have reached an agreement with MASN," said Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen in a statement. "We've always wanted to bring the Nationals to Comcast customers and want to thank everyone on Comcast and MASN's team who have worked to bring baseball to our D.C. area customers."
A Comcast spokeswoman referred to the statement when asked further questions about the agreement. The cable company also dropped pending legal complaints against MASN and the Orioles as part of the deal.
The Federal Communications Commission had ordered the sides to go to arbitration to reach a deal, and MASN faced a filing deadline in that process yesterday afternoon. The deadline hastened negotiations that had been stalled for more than a year, said a source with knowledge of the deal.
"If we were to go forward with the FCC complaint, then many of the issues around Comcast would be brought to the public attention, and I don't know that they really wanted that," Rifkin said.
Comcast officials had intimated they might raise subscription prices for their customers if they agreed to carry MASN. But a spokeswoman had no comment when asked about potential rate increases yesterday.
The dispute was rooted in the compensation Angelos negotiated from Major League Baseball when the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington last year. Baseball officials gave the Orioles 90 percent control of a regional cable network that would broadcast both teams' games. Angelos must pay annual rights fees to the Nationals ($20 million this year), and the Washington franchise will eventually own 33 percent of the network.
Many regarded the new cable network as the biggest plum in the package that Angelos negotiated. Similar cable deals greatly increased annual revenues and franchise values for the Yankees and Red Sox. The Yankees-owned YES Network is valued at more than $1 billion. In an interview this year, Angelos said revenues from MASN would be key to his club's chances of competing in the American League East.
"The reason the Red Sox and Yankees have had so much money to spend on player salaries is because they have team-owned regional sports networks," said David Frederick, an attorney who helped the Orioles with their FCC complaint against Comcast. "Those networks have created financial opportunities that have enabled the Red Sox and Yankees to sign great players. And the Orioles are going to be in that position now."
Comcast SportsNet sued the Orioles last year, claiming the creation of MASN violated the network's contract to broadcast the team's games. A Montgomery County Circuit judge dismissed that case, but Comcast continued refusing to carry the new network.
The cable giant said Angelos was asking an unreasonable price for a network that didn't even offer 24-hour programming. Angelos and MASN officials said Comcast was trying to squash a competitor of its own regional network, Comcast SportsNet.
As Nationals fans grew more irritated at not being able to watch their team, congressmen from the region began pressuring the sides to reach an agreement.
In April, Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, called Angelos, Cohen and others before his House Committee on Government Reform. At that hearing, a parade of elected officials urged the sides to reach a rapid agreement for the sake of Nationals fans. But neither side showed much sign of budging.
Davis and other Congress members continued to urge an agreement in the ensuing months and also asked the FCC to press for an agreement.
The FCC stepped in last month and ordered the sides to seek binding arbitration. That action was made as part of the agency's approval of the sale to Comcast and Time Warner of the assets of bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp. As a condition of the sale, the FCC said it wanted to protect the rights of regional sports networks not affiliated with large cable providers.
MASN, meanwhile, launched its 24-hour programming schedule this week.