Schmuck: Some are whispering about Orioles' future in Baltimore, but would they ever leave?

The Orioles remain mired in the long-running dispute with Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals over the revenue split from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, and it is beginning to create some angst over the future of baseball in Baltimore.

MASN and Orioles attorneys have contended in court documents that a negative outcome would create a financial hardship for the franchise, while the Nationals insist they already are being severely disadvantaged by the deal they agreed to in 2005 that gave the Orioles a much larger piece of the MASN pie.

That debate has simmered for years as the teams raised concerns about their economic sustainability. But as a new MLB panel prepares to rehear the case, there have been whispers around town about the possibility of the Orioles leaving Baltimore one day.

Recent speculation about MLB expansion has mentioned Nashville, Las Vegas, Montreal, Portland and Charlotte as possible locations for future franchises.

Don’t panic. The chances of the Orioles moving to Music City — or anywhere else for that matter — are extremely remote. The Orioles are a fixture in Baltimore and they play in one of the most popular and architecturally aesthetic ballparks in the major leagues. They have a dedicated fan following and an owner — Peter Angelos — whose personal and financial investment in the city spans decades.

But the dramatic downturn in the fortunes of the team this season has evoked comparisons with the 1988 club that opened the season with a record 21-game losing streak, and we all know what happened here in the 1980s. (See: Colts, Indianapolis)

When lawyers for the network and team submitted court pleadings that contend a redistribution of the MASN wealth in favor of the Nationals would severely damage the primarily Orioles-owned network, leaving it with an “economically unsustainable” profit margin, it was only a matter of time before once-burned, twice-shy Baltimore sports fans started to wonder.

It certainly doesn’t help that the Orioles are nearing the end of their Camden Yards lease or that an aging Angelos appears to have ceded control of the team to his two Baltimore-raised sons — John and Louis — whose love for the city might soon have to take a back seat to the economic well-being of the franchise.

Peter Angelos and a group of investors bought the Orioles for a record $173 million in 1993 to bring it back under local ownership. He has long described it as a public trust and steadfastly refused to sell naming rights to the ballpark while most other teams have made millions doing so.

The Orioles also have maintained the fan-friendly policy that allows customers to bring their own food into the ballpark and have one of the most liberal ticket-exchange programs in the industry. The club also recently instituted the “Kids Cheer Free” program that allows fans who buy an upper-deck ticket at regular price to bring along two children for free.

Still, Peter Angelos was a lightning rod for public criticism during the late 1990s and 2000s until the team emerged from a 14-year string of losing seasons to return to respectability and reach the playoffs three times from 2012 to 2016.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the Angelos family doing something that would allow fans to lump it together with Robert Irsay, who has been reviled in Baltimore since he moved the beloved Colts to Indianapolis under the cover of night in 1984.

John and Lou Angelos did not comment on the relocation speculation when The Baltimore Sun reached out to them this past week, but there has been no indication they are considering moving the team out of their hometown.

Rumors have surfaced periodically over the past couple of decades that the team might be for sale, but the ongoing MASN lawsuit also would complicate that possibility for a couple of reasons. The uncertainty of the outcome would make it difficult to accurately value the franchise and any sale would have to be approved by MLB, which is a party to the ongoing lawsuit.

The primary argument in favor of moving the franchise would be the club’s contention that a major drop in MASN money would reduce the Orioles to a perpetually marginal, low-revenue team that would be at a competitive disadvantage in the American League and a geographic disadvantage to the Nationals.

The Orioles and MASN cited studies in court documents that suggested attendance at Camden Yards would decrease by between 24 percent and 34 percent if the Montreal Expos were allowed to relocate to Washington. The lopsided MASN deal was devised to offset that negative economic impact, and the fact that the Orioles would no longer have an exclusive television territory.

Those attendance estimates proved to be accurate, if not understated. During the 10 seasons at Camden Yards from 1996 through the Nats’ inaugural 2005 season in Washington, the Orioles drew an average of 3,137,347 fans. Over the next 10 seasons, they drew an average of 2,086,915, a drop of 33 percent.

Of course, only part of that could be attributed to the arrival of the Nats. The Orioles were coming off more than a decade of huge crowds at Oriole Park, which had become one of Baltimore’s biggest tourist attractions. Still, Orioles attendance dropped from 2,624,740 to 2,153,139 the first season after the Nats arrived — an 18 percent decrease that seemed to validate their concerns.

The Orioles have fought stubbornly to maintain the original MASN agreement, which was publicly lauded by MLB and Nationals officials as a good deal for both teams after it was signed 13 years ago.

If it is overturned by the new MLB arbitration panel, all bets are off. But even in the wake of such a negative outcome for the Orioles, they probably aren’t going anywhere.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

 

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