Getting on board

MSA, O's end dispute in talks for video screen

October 15, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

The Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority have reached a tentative agreement to avoid arbitration and spend $9 million to replace the video display and audio systems at Camden Yards.

Under the agreement, which won't become official unless the Board of Public Works approves it Wednesday, the stadium authority would contribute $3.75 million to pay for an expanded, high-definition screen and scoreboard. The authority would also drop disputed claims for $1.5 million in past rent owed by the Orioles, according to a 23-page settlement document obtained by The Sun.

The Orioles would allow the authority to pay for the rest of the new video display using $5.25 million from a $10 million fund reserved for ballpark improvements. The team previously had said the stadium authority should not dip into the fund - awarded to the Orioles by an arbitrator in 2001 after a previous dispute with the authority - to pay for the screen.

The settlement says both parties would make best efforts to have a new video display installed before next season.

"If we had gone through with the arbitration, the timing would have been such that none of the work could have been done before the season started," said stadium authority chairman Frederick W. Puddester. "It's still a short time frame. But this gives us our best chance of getting improvements in place for the 2008 season and improving the fan experience at Camden Yards."

Puddester said a settlement was also the best option because there's never any telling how an arbitrator might rule. He noted that under the settlement, the stadium authority would pay to replace obsolete equipment such as the scoreboard, video board and video control room, while the Orioles would allow their money to pay for "improvements" such as a new audio system and a revamped out-of-town scoreboard.

"It seemed like a fair and equitable way to divide things," he said.

Alan M. Rifkin, the attorney who conducted settlement negotiations for the Orioles, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Under the settlement, the Orioles also would waive their right to claim financial damages for advertising revenue lost because the board was outdated and for the costs of spare parts. For the purposes of the agreement, the club valued those and several related claims at $1.5 million, meaning its concession would be equal to the rent concession made by the stadium authority.

The rent concession is significant, because a legislative audit released in February criticized the stadium authority for not pursuing rent claims against the Orioles more aggressively. That audit drew widespread scrutiny of the authority and its former executive director, Alison Asti, who was recently fired.

The dispute between the authority and the club began almost a year ago, when the authority announced plans to purchase a $1.5 million Mitsubishi DiamondVision board to replace the 15-year-old Sony JumboTron at Camden Yards.

The Orioles said the agency was rushing to buy a board that would be outdated by the time it was installed.

The stadium authority said it was happy to buy a bigger board if the Orioles agreed to pick up part of the bill. Agency officials also warned that the Sony screen could fail during the 2007 season. (Though technicians ran perilously low on spare parts, the board never stopped functioning.)

After winning a court injunction in December to block the authority's purchase, the Orioles hired Janet Marie Smith, who helped oversee the construction of Camden Yards, to head a design team that would investigate the park's video and audio needs.

Even as Smith and several technical experts began their work, the Orioles and the authority moved toward arbitration hearings that also included disputes over the formulas used to determine past rent payments.

The sides had picked an arbitration panel and were scheduled to begin courtlike hearings later this fall. But the authority and club sought a settlement, knowing that the chances of getting a new screen installed for the 2008 season would be lessened if they waited for arbitration.

The Orioles already have created preliminary designs for the new video display and would provide those to the stadium authority under the settlement agreement. Representatives from the club and authority would then meet to complete a design plan, which also would include audio improvements and a new control room capable of handling high-definition video.

Smith and Orioles executive vice president John Angelos are listed among the team representatives who would supervise the design.

The stadium authority would then solicit bids for the project.

Under the settlement, the stadium authority would also replace padding in the outfield that does not match the dark-green color scheme of the rest of the park. Padding ordered last year was a lighter green because of a manufacturer's error.

Finally, the authority would concede that it has no right to charge rent from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (90 percent owned by the Orioles) for use of fifth-floor offices in the warehouse.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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