As 4th season closes, MASN's balancing act carries on

The Baltimore Sun

MASN has overcome early growing pains but still faces challenges - low ratings and complaints by Washington Nationals fans - to better establish itself in Baltimore and Washington.

No one ever believed MASN's task was easy: to win the hearts and minds of Orioles and Nationals viewers, two distinct fan bases from cities often cast as rivals.

So how is MASN faring as its fourth season comes to a close? It depends whom you ask.

To the Orioles, who hold majority control of MASN, the network is fulfilling its goals of televising both teams' games while providing the franchises predictable revenue in good economic times and bad. The Nationals have a minority MASN stake that can grow to as much as 33 percent over the next several decades.

This year's MASN payment to the teams is $26 million each. The annual rights fees are locked into an agreement that Orioles owner Peter Angelos negotiated with Major League Baseball before the Nationals arrived in Washington for the 2005 season. Angelos said winning TV rights to both the Orioles and Nationals was critical to ensuring the long-term viability of his club.

Andy MacPhail, Orioles president of baseball operations, said: "It's important to have a steady stream of revenue that you can count on going into the future that's substantial. It's unlike other revenues that rise and fall."

Its advocates believe the arrangement protects the clubs from situations where - after a bad year on the field - they would have to negotiate at a disadvantage with networks vying for broadcast rights

Orioles executives know well what happened several years ago in Minnesota. The Twins began a regional sports network but couldn't get primary cable operators to carry it. The club, after complaints arose from fans about games not being televised, abandoned the network and negotiated a new deal with a Fox regional sports network.

MASN, too, had early difficulty getting games on the air. Comcast SportsNet had broadcast rights to the Orioles through the 2006 season. Many Nationals fans couldn't get MASN for most of 2006 because of a dispute between the network and Comcast over the cost of carrying the network.

But today, MASN says it's available in 5.2 million households from Harrisburg, Pa., to Charlotte, N.C. It says it has doubled its advertising from 2007 and recently opened a Silver Spring sales office. "MASN is fully intertwined in the sports fabric of Washington and Baltimore," spokesman Todd Webster said.

Many Washington fans still believe the network promotes the Orioles more than the Nationals and produces better-quality broadcasts for Baltimore's games than Washington's. MASN insists everything - from production to marketing - is 50-50.

The Nationals were averaging a 0.39 rating - worst by far in baseball this season - and 9,000 households in the Washington market, according to a midseason report in SportsBusiness Journal based on Nielsen Media Research data. The Journal, which published its data a week before the All-Star break, said the Orioles averaged a 3.05 rating and 33,000 households in its market.

The Nationals' ratings are certainly affected by the club's woes on the field. Last in the National League East, Washington is one of the worst-hitting teams in baseball. Its lineup has been severely hurt by injuries.

"I do think it [the ratings] will turn around once the team starts winning," said John Mansell, a Northern Virginia sports media analyst.

Nationals president Stan Kasten declined to comment.

Fans in both markets wondered during the season why MASN didn't show more games in high definition than the 40 for each team. MASN said the format posed technical challenges and that there were also issues of getting carriers' HD slots.

MASN announced Sept. 16 that it is roughly doubling the number of HD games in 2009 by launching dedicated high-definition channels with its cable and satellite carriers. The upgrade means 160-200 of the two teams' 324 games will be in HD.

Mansell said the Nationals face a longer-term issue - rights fees.

"If you look at rights fees, they are generally based on the size of the market. And the Washington market is really much larger than the Baltimore market, so they ought to be getting a bigger rights fee," Mansell said. He said the arrangement Angelos made will deprive the Nationals of creating their own network as other teams have done.

Angelos said last year that the deal was needed because the Nationals had crossed into what was once Orioles territory. "That was the driving force - to save this franchise from competition introduced immediately in its backyard," he said.

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