MASN seeks hearts, eyes of 2 cities

Sports network, home to O's and Nats, beefs up Washington-oriented programming

January 14, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

From their offices in the Camden Yards warehouse, executives of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network enjoy a quintessential Baltimore view. Perched on the fifth floor above Oriole Park's flag court, they can peer into the stadium and practically smell the grass.

But the fledgling network's officials aren't eager to publicize their Baltimore location. "It's not about where we're located, it's what's on the air," said MASN spokesman Todd Webster, who was reluctant to have a Sun photographer shoot pictures of the offices for this article.

It's not that MASN is ashamed to be in Baltimore. Rather, the network, preparing for its first season as the television home of the Orioles and Washington Nationals, is trying to counter the perception of many Washingtonians that it is a Baltimore-focused vehicle of the Orioles and their owner, Peter Angelos. "This is not a Baltimore network just because it is majority-owned by the Orioles," said Michael J. Haley, MASN's chief financial officer.

Showing it cares equally about Washington-area viewers is critical if MASN is to achieve its goal of becoming pre-eminent in regional sports. It faces competition from more established Comcast SportsNet, which emphasizes sports news and televises Washington Wizards and Capitals games. SportsNet is based in Bethesda but - like MASN - aims to appeal to fans in Baltimore as well as Washington.

Angelos said MASN, which simulcasts Baltimore radio shows and bills itself as the "official cable network" of the Ravens, will soon devote at least as much air time to Washington's sports as Baltimore's. The network, which began broadcasting sports around the clock over the summer, plans to televise at least 10 Georgetown men's basketball games this season and recently signed a deal to simulcast former Redskin John Riggins' weekday radio show. "Our purpose is to bring the two metropolitan regions together - not to divide them or to be partisan," Angelos said.

MASN, which says it has about 35 employees and is still hiring, is owned primarily by the Orioles. The Nationals have a minority stake that can grow to as much 33 percent over the next several decades.

Not an easy sell

The perception of MASN as an Angelos tool arose when the owner negotiated with Major League Baseball for the TV rights to Nationals games before the club's arrival in Washington before the 2005 season. Angelos had long argued that the region couldn't support two baseball teams. He says that winning TV rights to both the Orioles and Nationals was critical to ensuring the long-term viability of his club.

"That was the driving force - to save this franchise from competition introduced immediately in its backyard," Angelos said. Under the deal, MASN pays an annual fee - it will be $25 million in 2007 - to the Orioles and Nationals for the games.

Many Washington fans still need to be won over. Some remember the banner hanging at RFK Stadium at the Nationals' first game there in 2005. It was apparently the product of a fan still angry with Angelos for opposing a Washington team. "Dear Angelos. You Stink. Signed, Everyone," it said.

Eric Parker, a Nationals fan from Arlington, Va., said that since MASN "does have a Baltimore vibe to it, with the O's and the Ravens," he needs to be convinced that it won't shortchange the Nationals.

"What we have to wait and see on is what happens in 2007 when MASN carries both the O's and the Nats," said Parker, who worries that Nationals games could be bumped.

MASN officials say "MASN Plus" channels will be in place when the teams play simultaneously, assuring that neither teams' games will be dropped.

Many Nationals fans couldn't get MASN for most of last season because of a dispute between the network and Comcast over the cost of carrying the network.

"I guess it [MASN] is a product of Baltimore and Angelos in a way, but it's still new," said Don Plavnick of Arlington, Va., who helps run the Nats Fan Club. He said Washington fans hope the Nationals-Orioles broadcast mix will be "50-50."

One item MASN can't guarantee is high-definition broadcasts. Comcast SportsNet televised the Orioles in HD last season. "To transmit in HD, you have to get an HD channel. That's something we're talking about with the cable operators," said Jim Cuddihy, a MASN programming executive. Though its executive offices are in the warehouse, the network hasn't announced where its broadcast studios will be located.

With two teams, MASN enjoys an advantage over Comcast SportsNet, whose contract with the Orioles expired after last season.

The rival

"To lose baseball is a huge blow to a regional sports network," said John Mansell, a Northern Virginia-based sports and media analyst for Kagan Research. "Baseball is the anchor for any regional sports network. There is very little substitute programming of any real quality in the summertime."

But Mansell said SportsNet's survival is not in jeopardy, and SportsNet officials expressed optimism that the network can succeed in a changed environment.

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