On common ground, Orioles and Nationals have complicated relationship

Teams must market themselves to one region while not stepping on each other's toes

May 05, 2013|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

For decades, the Orioles commanded a sweeping empire of fans — a territory larger than some European countries, stretching from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina and including Washington, where the team operated a popular retail store.

The club's games are still broadcast across most of the same region, but the Orioles now share much of it with the Washington Nationals, who are ensconced in a population-rich portion of what was once the Orioles' domain.

The Nationals' arrival in 2005 created a complicated relationship in which the teams are at once neighbors, opponents on the field and, lately, bickering business partners when it comes to the regional television network they co-own but the Orioles control.

The clubs are outwardly cordial — it helps that they are in different leagues — and both teams' front offices are anxious to keep it that way.

"There's plenty of room for two teams in the region," said Andy Feffer, the Nationals' chief operating officer.

"Both organizations just have a comfort level in terms of where their fans are," said Greg Bader, the Orioles' vice president for communications and marketing.

But maintaining the relationship can be challenging. The clubs are like roommates sharing a space that one had long occupied. They must make delicate calculations about how far they can go in marketing without intruding on the other's turf.

It doesn't help that the franchises can't agree on how much more money the Nationals should receive in annual rights fees from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which televises both teams' games. The issue has been unsettled for more than a year, and neither team will comment on it.

The dispute was predictable, given how the network's ownership is structured, said John Mansell, a sports media consultant from Great Falls, Va. The Orioles were given a majority stake in MASN after owner Peter G. Angelos argued that in order to remain viable, his club would need to recoup the money lost with the emergence of a second team in Baltimore's commercial territory. One club controlling another club's network, Mansell said, "was a recipe for disaster."

The rights-fee dispute remains under advisement by baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Major League Baseball also oversees the clubs' marketing territories. The Orioles and Nationals, who will play each other four times in late May, seem to have more flexibility to promote themselves across the region than their NFL counterparts — the Ravens and Washington Redskins.

In a 2004 agreement, the NFL divided the state into Ravens "purple" and Redskins "burgundy." The Redskins were given exclusive rights to Montgomery and Prince George's counties; the Ravens got the rest.

The NFL's boundaries apply to sales or promotions using team symbols and cover everything from team-related pizza-topping giveaways to billboards and mailed solicitations. But the lines don't always work. In 2006, John Ziemann, president of the Ravens marching band, received a Redskins season-ticket solicitation at his Harford County home. So did a Ravens executive.

"I thought, 'They're barking up the wrong tree with this boy,' " Ziemann said.

The Redskins told The Balltimore Sun that the flier was sent to the county inadvertently. The team said the mailing, coordinated by a Redskins sponsor, was supposed to have been sorted to exclude Ravens-area addresses.

If Major League Baseball has carved out marketing territories — and it says it has — it's not sharing them publicly.

When the Nationals, after 36 seasons as the Montreal Expos, arrived in Washington for the 2005 season, MLB said the team's operating territory would be defined in the Major League Baseball Constitution, the occasionally amended governing agreement among the 30 clubs. At the time of the Nationals' move, the document defined the Orioles' territory as the city of Baltimore and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford. It did not include Washington, even though the Orioles then had a retail store there.

MLB declined to explain the reasoning or provide an updated document.

Washington's natural marketing territory, which includes rapidly growing Northern Virginia, dwarfs Baltimore's in population. Washington's "designated market area," which measures television households, is the nation's eighth-largest. "That's a huge marketplace," Feffer said.

Baltimore's TV market was 27th in the 2011-2012 rankings.

"The Nats are a team on the rise in the bigger market," said Mike Reynolds, news editor for Multichannel News, a trade magazine and website. Given that, he said, it's "pretty unique" that they are a "subset" of the regional sports network broadcasting their games.

Angelos could not be reached for comment last week. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2008 that MASN was structured "to save this franchise from competition introduced immediately in its backyard."

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